An areal view of the National Library of Medicine building on the NIH campus when it was new.

New History of the NLM: A New Name and A New Home

By Jeffrey S. Reznick and Susan L. Speaker ~

This is the sixth post in a series of nine which serializes the new book US National Library of Medicine in the 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, including the 170+ black-and-white images which appear in it, is freely available via 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!

During the sunny and warm afternoon of June 12, 1959, dignitaries and guests gathered on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda to break ground for the new National Library of Medicine. Only a few years earlier, Senators Joseph Lister Hill and John F. Kennedy had introduced a bill to transfer the Library to the US Public Health Service and rename it from the Armed Forces Medical Library, as it had been known since 1952, to the National Library of Medicine. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill into law on August 3, 1956, paving the way for the ground breaking in 1959 and the dedication of the new Library building two and a half years later, on December 14, 1961.

However, the road to this new home was not an easy one. For nearly a decade after World War II, various committees, government agencies, and individuals debated how to fund a new library building, where to locate it, and whether to keep it within the US Army. Most agreed that the Library should be transferred to a civilian agency so that it would not need to compete for military funding. Some suggested the Library of Congress. Others suggested the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, which included the Public Health Service. Many argued for a site somewhere in Bethesda, near the National Naval Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health. Others proposed moving the Library to Chicago, near the headquarters of the American Medical Association. Ultimately, with the support of many prominent individuals, including the surgeon Michael E. DeBakey, former Library director Joseph H. McNinch, John Fulton, Chauncey D. Leake, and other leaders in medicine and government who held the Library in high regard, the argument for Bethesda won the day. Its new location would be on the former Glenbrook public golf course at the south end of the campus of the National Institutes of Health.

Architects designed the building, situated on a knoll facing Wisconsin Avenue, to be a very modern and efficient new home for the Library. The structure measured 276 feet by 192 feet, and its five levels provided 231,560 square feet of floor space and a quarter million linear feet of space for shelves, with an ultimate capacity of 1.5 million volumes. Planners expected that it could accommodate expansion for at least 25 years. It had plenty of electric light throughout and lots of elevators to facilitate movement of staff and materials. While book and journal storage occupied several floors, technical and photographic services had a large amount of space as well. These spaces would also soon house computer technology that would become essential to the Library’s mission.

Black and white photograph of library under construction.
The front entrance of the new Library
building takes shape in this April 7, 1961, photograph.

The architecture of the building also exemplified the Cold War era in a number of ways. The lead architect, Walter H. Kilham Jr., later recalled that he had to give particular consideration  to the effects of a potential atomic bomb blast. His plans therefore included reinforced concrete walls, small windows, and three underground levels for book stacks. Kilham also designed the Library to have a secondary use as an air-raid shelter. For many years, the lower levels housed containers of food, medical kits, and other civil defense emergency supplies along with the books. And even the eye-catching, pagoda-like roof of the new building was in part a bomb-resistance feature, providing what Kilham described as a pressure-relief opening near the center that would protect the collection from bomb-blast shock waves. Kilham later commented that though many people viewed the unusual shape of the “dome” with misgivings at first, eventually it came to be “accepted and finally liked by practically everyone.”

On the morning of December 14, 1961, dignitaries and guests gathered again on the campus of the National Institutes of Health, this time to dedicate the new building as the National Library of Medicine. Among them was Abraham Ribicoff, secretary of health, education, and welfare, who conveyed a message of congratulations from President John F. Kennedy:

The dedication of the new National Library of Medicine perpetuates a distinguished history extending back to the early days of our nation. This enterprise has my congratulations and best wishes for a new era of outstanding service to medical research and the dissemination of medical knowledge throughout America and around the world.

During the spring of the following year, movers relocated the collection of the Library—totaling 65,000 linear feet of materials—from the Old Red Brick to the new one in Bethesda. Movers also transported to the new building the 35,000 volumes of the Historical and Rare Books Collection that had been housed in Cleveland since World War II. The new National Library of Medicine opened its doors to the public on April 14, 1962, under the direction of Col. Frank B. Rogers, MD (1914–1987), the last active-duty Army officer to serve as director as the Library transitioned to a civilian agency.

Sometime during or after the demolition of the Old Red Brick in February 1969, staff collected bricks from the site for keepsakes and to offer as retirement gifts to colleagues and friends of the institutions. Since that time, many of these bricks have been returned to both the Library, at its current home on the campus of the National Institutes of Health, and the Museum, at its current home in Silver Spring, Maryland, as part of materials donated to the institutions by former staff, or by medical and scientific leaders who received bricks as tokens of appreciation. So while the Old Red Brick is gone, pieces of it remain to help historians, librarians, and others remember the history of the Library and the Museum and the place they once occupied on the National Mall.

Jeffrey S. Reznick, PhD, is Chief of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

Susan Speaker, PhD, is Historian for the Digital Manuscripts Program of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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