A street mat of Washinton DC showing the location of the Army Medical Library.

A New History of NLM: The “Old Red Brick”

By Anne Rothfeld ~

This is the fourth post in a series of nine which serializes the new book US National Library of Medicine in the popular Images of America series of Arcadia Publishing. A hardback version of the book is available from booksellers, and an electronic version of the complete book and original versions of the 170+ images, which appear in it in black and white, are archived and freely available in NLM Digital Collections.  The Intramural Research Program of the US National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, supported the research, writing, and editing of this publication. We hope that you will add it to your summer reading list!

The surgeon general’s Library moved into Ford’s Theatre in 1866, but it was not until 1883 that Surgeon General Robert Murray consolidated the Library and the Army Medical Museum into a single administrative institution, with John Shaw Billings as its director. By this time, the institutions could not move out of the building soon enough. Hastily constructed, Ford’s Theatre was never suited to house a library or museum, despite its floors being subdivided with iron bookshelves and museum storage space. The rapidly expanding collections soon exceeded the available storage capacity, and their weight strained the floors nearly to the point of collapse, which they did in 1893, after the Library and Museum had moved out. Even before that terrible incident, Museum and Library staff worked in constant fear that a fire would destroy the collections. Dim lighting came from outdated gas and oil lamps, and the lack of air circulation created dank and stifling work spaces. For Surgeon General Murray, the Library ’s location was untenable.

Architecture plans for the new medical library and museum.
A set of architectural plans for the new Library and Museum by Cluss & Schulze, dating from around 1885.

After several years of conceiving building designs and lobbying Congress for funds, Billings embarked on an effort to create a more suitable home for the Library and the Museum. To develop the overall concept of a new building, he referred to his own experiences of surveying Army hospital facilities during the Civil War and working with the trustees of the Johns Hopkins estate to design Johns Hopkins Hospital. Billings consulted with Adolf Cluss, the influential German architect, to shape the form and function of a new building. They designed an elegant and practical four-story structure consisting of two large wings—one for the Army Medical Museum and the other for the Library—connected by a center building that housed offices and workrooms. Constructed of red brick, concrete, and iron, the entire building was effectively fireproof. As a precaution, each wing could be sealed off from the rest of the building to prevent fires from spreading. Light streamed through rows of large windows on the exterior walls, and heat from a steam boiler flowed throughout the air ducts of the building. In the rear courtyard, a small annex held the lavatories and the Army’s pathological and biological laboratory.

In 1887, the Army Medical Museum and the Library moved into their new location on the National Mall, at the intersection of Seventh Street and Independence Avenue, where the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is located today. For the first time, the Library  occupied a purpose-built facility, a grand and stately building its staff fondly called the “Old Red Brick.” The new building was a tremendous improvement over Ford’s Theatre; however, it was not perfect. The abundant natural light coming through the windows did not reach the interior recesses, which made working in the book stacks difficult for the Library staff. Electric lights were eventually installed but were not enough to remedy the lack of natural light. Librarians and clerks resorted to using flashlights to retrieve items from the stacks.

 Interior view of Library Hall in the Army Medical Museum and Library, where John S. Billings is seated at a reference table and Thomas W. Wise is standing near a desk.
Thomas Washington Wise, manager of Library operations, stands to the left of the desk as John Shaw Billings sits at a reference table in the new Library Hall in 1887. Billings involved himself with the smallest details of the Library’s planning, including the architectural designs for book shelving and retrieval. A dumbwaiter, or book lift, located at the right end of the stacks enabled staff to move books from one floor to another.

Within 10 years, Library personnel realized that the growing pace of medical publishing and the Library’s acquisitions would soon exceed the available shelf space. Although Billings and Cluss designed the Library’s storage space to accommodate what they thought would be many years of growth, books and pamphlets were soon packed tightly into every corner of the spacious building, making retrievals difficult. By 1910, the roof leaked, the interior plumbing periodically flooded, and the plaster walls crumbled. The first renovation began in 1911, but Congress allocated only enough money to complete essential repairs, leaving minor structural problems to be addressed later.

In 1914, war erupted in Europe and spread across the world. The Library staff felt the effects of the Great War. Many European medical publications that the Library had been acquiring soon stopped arriving due to the German U-boat campaign against merchant ships in Atlantic shipping lanes. The United States entered the war in 1917, and when the US Department of War called men into service, this affected the Library personnel, many of whom were Army clerks. Recognizing that the Library could not function without much of its staff, the Army allowed Library leadership to hire temporary employees, many of whom were women. This marked the first time that the Library employed women in significant numbers, including Audrey Morgan, MD, and Loy McAfee, MD, both contract physicians with the US Army.

In 1917, Library leadership saw the need for a medical history of the Great War, as it had done for the American Civil War with the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion. The surgeon general created the History Division within the Library to undertake the task of writing The Medical Department of the United States Army in the World War. Published over eight years from 1921 to 1929, this comprehensive 15-volume series covered subjects ranging from general surgery to hygiene, orthopedics to combat disorders, and hospitals to gas warfare.

The Library and Museum remained in the Old Red Brick for more than seven decades, but during World War II, the most valuable holdings of the Library would find a new home.

Anne Rothfeld, PhD, is a librarian and historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.


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