Map of Bethesda, MD from 1879 naming the local land owners

Who Was Here First

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) sits on the southeast corner of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus in Bethesda, Maryland. Although it began in 1836, the NLM has only been located in Bethesda since 1961, when a new building was built for the library. So, who was there first?

At the time of the first European explorations, what is now Bethesda was a heavily forested area with a stream. Native Americans were present in the area, traveling and hunting, though no known Native American settlements existed precisely where NLM sits today.

In the early 18th century, the land was made part of two landgrants to Thomas Fletchall in 1715 and by 1783 most of the land had been cleared, probably for tobacco farming.

The land was then owned by Robert Peter, one of the wealthiest men in Montgomery County and the first mayor of Georgetown. Robert’s son, Thomas, married Martha Parke Custis, the granddaughter of Martha Washington. Their Georgetown home, Tudor Place, still stands.

In 1873, Thomas and Martha’s granddaughter, Martha Custis Kennon, along with her husband and second cousin, Armistead Peter, inherited the Bethesda land and built a summer home called Winona on this site. Armistead was a physician and oversaw a smallpox hospital during the Civil War.

After Armistead Peter’s death in 1902, the land was divided among his four surviving children. One son, Beverley Kennon Peter, inherited the house and the surrounding 116 acres. Another son, George Freeland Peter, built a summer home on his part of the inherited land in 1930. That structure is now called the Stone House and is a part of NIH, housing the Fogarty International Center.

From the mid-nineteenth century the families of three brothers, Joseph, Madison, and Henry Gingle (or Gingell) lived near the small brook just south of the NLM site. Madison and his wife Artemesia called their farm, Woodmont, which gave its name to nearby Woodmont Avenue. An 1879 map shows Henry Gingle living in a house near the brook, but by the twentieth century, that house had disappeared.

Several members of the Gingle family, including Madison and Artemesia, are buried in the small graveyard by the Bethesda Church, just north of the NIH campus.

Map showing the region as Bethesda P.O. with the names of residents, including Dr. A Peter and M. Gingle
G.M. Hopkins. Atlas of Fifteen Miles Around Washington, Including the County of Montgomery Maryland. Philadelphia, 1879
Courtesy of Montgomery County Historical Society

In 1921, the Town and Country Club, founded by members of Washington’s German–Jewish community, purchased the home called Winona from the children of Armistead and Martha Peter. The club had reached a membership of 250 and started looking for more spacious quarters outside of the District.

When first purchased, Winona was “an old, run-down country house, complete with a tuneless grand piano” in Bethesda, but extensive renovations turned the Georgian brick house into a white columned mansion. The surrounding land was transformed into a nine-hole golf course that could become an eighteen-hole course by playing from a second set of tees.

In 1930 the club officially became Woodmont Country Club and hosted social events such as formal dinners, summer dances, and golf matches.

During the Depression and World War II the Woodmont Country Club suffered from a loss of members and income. Then, just as the Club was beginning to enjoy the post-War prosperity, the Federal Government announced its intention to purchase the property for NIH in 1948. The Club relocated five miles north on Rockville Pike, where it remains today, while the Bethesda property and house were operated as the public Glenbrook Golf Course until 1955. Ground was broken for the National Library of Medicine in 1959.

In 1983–4 an archaeological excavation just south of the NLM buildings was conducted as a preliminary to construction for the Woodmont Avenue Extension Project. The excavation unearthed what is thought to be a temporary hunting camp for Native Americans traveling across the region, inferred by the site’s proximity to an ancient trail that ran along present-day Wisconsin Ave/Old Georgetown Road. The dig revealed stone tools from the Late Archaic through the late Woodlands periods (approximately 1000 BCE–1600 CE). Archaeologists identified stone projectile points (for spears and arrows), hammerstones, daggers, and thousands of stone flakes and fragments.

The dig also revealed items dating from the mid-nineteenth century, such as ceramic fragments, glass, bones, and bricks, which may have come from a Gingle family trash pit. These materials are now held in the DeWitt Stetten, Jr., Museum of Medical Research, National Institutes of Health.

Arrowheads and stones about the shape and size of a potato
Stone fragments found in the 1980s at the archaeological site.
Courtesy of DeWitt Stetten, Jr., Museum of Medical Research, National Institutes of Health

These archaeological objects inspire a curiosity of the past and provide a glimpse into the rich history of the land that now holds the NLM.

In 1998 the National Library of Medicine presented an exhibition We Were Here First, prepared by Carol Clausen with an online version prepared by Young Rhee, both members of the NLM History of Medicine Division. The exhibition examined the history of the land that the NLM currently sits on, within the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda. The archive of the online version is available in the NLM Institutional Archives.

Cecelia Vetter, a National Library of Medicine 2018–2019 Associate Fellow, adapted this post from the online version of We Were Here First. Ms. Vetter received her B.A. from Washington University in St. Louis and her M.L.I.S. from the University of Maryland, College Park.

2 comments

  1. Given that NLM is a scientific organization, using religious terms referencing time such as “BC” and “AD” is inappropriate. Please consider revising this webpage with the secular non-religious terms of “BCE” and “CE.”

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