By Jeffrey S. Reznick ~
David J. Skorton, Secretary of the Smithsonian and a board-certified cardiologist, recently honored the National Library of Medicine (NLM) with a visit to learn about our historical collections and exhibitions. Given our successful engagement with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in both the display of Civil War nurse Amanda Akin’s diary in the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery, and the creation of the popular traveling banner exhibition From DNA to Beer: Harnessing Nature in Medicine and Industry, it was also a chance to discuss future collaborative opportunities.
As Secretary, Dr. Skorton oversees 19 museums and galleries, 21 libraries, the National Zoo and numerous education and research centers, including the Smithsonian Astrophysics Observatory, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, and the Smithsonian Science Education Center. Under his leadership, a new strategic plan has been developed with a focus on convening critical conversations about topics of vital public interest. An example of this was the first-of-its-kind Earth Optimism Summit on Earth Day weekend 2017, which brought together scientists, thought leaders, conservationists, and students to share conservation and sustainability solutions that have worked and can work on a larger scale. The strategic plan also calls for increased outreach and attention to the relevance and impact of the Smithsonian’s activities.
During his visit, Patricia Tuohy, head of the NLM’s Exhibition Program, engaged with Dr. Skorton on a discussion of the exhibition development process. She then led the Secretary on a tour of our traveling banner exhibition Pictures of Nursing, based on the NLM’s Zwerdling postcard collection, spanning a century of nursing imagery and demonstrating how nurses and nursing have been the frequent subjects of postcards, whose images are informed by cultural values; ideas about women, men, and work; and by attitudes toward class, race, and national differences.
Stephen J. Greenberg, head of NLM’s Rare Books and Early Manuscripts section, offered Dr. Skorton a look at of some of the Library’s most historically-significant items, through a selection which demonstrated the vast scope and variety of NLM’s history of medicine collections.
Among the items Dr. Greenberg showed Dr. Skorton were the library’s oldest book, Razi’s Hawī fī al-tibb [Comprehensive Book on Medicine], dated to 1094; a Latin translation of the Avicenna Canon produced in the Low Countries c. 1450; the Tashrīḥ al-badan [Anatomy of the Human Body], a very rare Persian illustrated anatomy text by Manṣūr ibn Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad c.1488; NLM’s copy of the Vesalius De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (1543) [On the fabric of the human body in seven books] with its hand-written poem by Philip Melanchthon, and Gautier D’Agoty’s spectacular color mezzotint anatomy atlas from 1745. Rounding off the selection was Nobel Prize Winner Marshall W. Nirenberg’s original genetic code summary chart dating from the 1960s.
Joining Dr. Skorton on his tour was NLM Director Dr. Patricia Flatley Brennan. Together, they discussed a variety of topics ranging from the importance and promise of data science in the medical enterprise, to the contributions that cultural organizations of all kinds can make to scientific discovery, and to inspiring and nurturing future generations of researchers of all disciplines. “I am proud that the NLM stands with other federal agencies like the Smithsonian to ensure the preservation and accessibility of the knowledge of society,” Dr. Brennan said.
Upon the conclusion of his visit, Dr. Skorton remarked, “The American people are lucky to have such a comprehensive source of medical knowledge at their disposal. I look forward to finding more projects on which the Smithsonian can work with the National Library of Medicine.” He subsequently tweeted about his appreciation of the NLM and its collections:
We thank you, Dr. Skorton. We were very happy to host you, and we look forward to keeping in touch and to future engagements with the Smithsonian.
The Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex, with 19 museums and the National Zoo—shaping the future by preserving our heritage, discovering new knowledge, and sharing our resources with the world. The Institution was founded in 1846 with funds from the Englishman James Smithson (1765–1829) according to his wishes “under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” We continue to honor this mission and invite you to join us in our quest.
Jeffrey S. Reznick, PhD, is Chief of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.