A man at a podium speaks to a larger audience of men and women in formal clothes sitting in rows of chairs.

The 1936 NLM Centennial, Focusing on the Future

By Michael Kronenfeld and Jennie J. Kronenfeld ~

In 1901 United States Senate created the Senate Park Commission to develop the National Mall into the city’s and nation’s ceremonial core. Among the plan’s recommendations was the removal of all government buildings not in the Beaux Arts style including the “Old Red Brick” (as the Army Medical Library and Museum’s building was known).

The Commission’s work advanced slowly but in January 1930 Senator Reed Smoot, Chairman of the Senate Public Building Commission wrote the Secretary of War:

A man in a suit and fedora walks outside carrying papers.
Senator Reed Owen Smoot
U.S. Senate, Courtesy Library of Congress

In reply to your letter of January 23, 1930, it is not yet practicable to indicate any date on which the present Army Medical Museum and Library Building in the Mall will have to be vacated, but it is evident that this will be necessary in the course of a year or two.

Later in the letter he adds:

I request on behalf of this Commission that you take the steps necessary to provide this building on the Walter Reed Hospital Reservation, as contemplated by the Act of July 2, 1919, so that the present building may be vacated at the earliest opportunity practicable…

A typwritten letter addressed to the Secretary of War.
Smoot to Secretary of War, Jan, 25, 1930
Army Medical Library archives, 1916–1951, MS C 309
National Library of Medicine #2934142R

Smoot’s letter presented an opportunity to gain support for a new building which was greatly needed as the Library and Museum had greatly outgrown their building over thirty years earlier setting into motion a series of events focused on the future of the Library and Museum.  The 1936 celebration of the Library’s 100th anniversary was a key event in this progression as it reinforced the understanding of their importance and achievements.  This chain of events led to the renaissance of the Library and its transition from the country’s national medical library to its National Library of Medicine.

The need for a new building was well known.  In 1919, after several years of discussion on the new location of the needed new building, legislation had been passed appropriating $350,000 for the purchase of land “for the final location of the Army Medical Museum, the Surgeon General’s Library, and the Army Medical School,” contiguous to the Walter Reed Hospital in Maryland. In 1922 a site for the future Library building was purchased in the vicinity of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  Architects’ plans and specifications for a building estimated to cost $2,000,000 were completed.  This marked the high point in interest in the Library and Museum which declined over the next twenty years until Smoot sent his letter.

A street map showing the area between the Capitol and the Washington Monument with three circles of increasing radius centered on 'the old red brick' building on the Mall near the intersection of Virginia and Maryland Avenues.

As the news of Smoot’s letter on the need to move the Library began to spread in 1930, the American Medical Association passed a resolution strongly supporting the need for a new building in Bethesda, Maryland near Walter Reed Hospital.  The Surgeon General and the Librarian also worked to maintain support for the site for a new building near the Walter Reed Hospital in suburban Maryland against a variety of other suggestions for keeping it in DC or combining it with the Library of Congress.

An older white man in a suit sitting informally in an office.
Harvey Williams Cushing, 1938
Wellcome Library #14077i

Surgeon General Robert Patterson requested the noted Neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing, whose daughter was married to President Roosevelt’s son James, to lobby the President to support the funding of the new building for the Library. Roosevelt strongly supported the building of a new Library but, due to the deepening depression, Congress did not pass an appropriation to fund its construction.

In 1935, after three years of a decreased level of funding due to the Depression, Patterson and Librarian Edgar Hume began a discussion on a celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the Library to bring positive publicity for the Library both to support efforts for restoration of the Library’s operational funding and for a new building and of the Library retaining its institutional position under the Department of the Army.  The selection of 1836 as the beginning of the Library was arbitrary but was selected to justify the timing of the centennial.

The story developed in support of the 1836 founding date was that the Library grew from the seed of the personal collection of the first Surgeon General of the Army, Joseph Lovell, appointed in 1818, to become the official Library of the Office of the Surgeon General in 1836 when for the first time it was included as a separate item in the Office’s a budget in a request for $150 for books.

A man at a podium speaks to a larger audience of men and women in formal clothes sitting in rows of chairs.
Sir Humphry Rolleston Addresses Dignitaries at the Army Medical Library’s Centennial Celebration, 1936
National Library of Medicine #101445715

In spite of the ongoing efforts funding was not immediately forthcoming. Lobbying continued for building a new building for the Army Medical Library in the space purchased in 1922. The Army Medical Departments efforts, including Cushing’s direct lobbying with Roosevelt, resulted in Roosevelt’s support and his publicly urging the Congress to pass legislation authorizing the construction of the building at the Maryland location.  An appropriation of one third of the money needed to construct the building was passed in the Senate in 1938 but Congress adjourned before the House was able to pass it.  It was not until 1941 that legislation authorizing the Army $130,000 for further planning the building was passed although it was decided to postpone construction until after the war emergency had passed.  The new building would finally be built in 1962 for the National Library of Medicine.

The Main Entrance of the National Library of Medicine Building
National Library of Medicine #101643395

Smoot’s letter in 1930 on the need to move the Library and tear down the Old Red Brick for the development of the National Mall and the celebration of the Library’s Centennial celebration in 1936 which highlighted the Army Medical Library’s importance as the nation’s “national medical library,” brought the importance of the Library’s future into greater focus. The depression and then the start of the War prevented action in this time period, but the momentum enabled Librarian Jones’ efforts during the War to modernize the Library to carry forward the development of the nation’s medical library into the National Library of Medicine.

Michael Kronenfeld, MLS, MBA, AHIP, FMLA, is University Librarian Emeritus at A.T. Still University of the Health Sciences. Jennie J. Kronenfeld, PhD is Professor Emerita at Arizona State University. Their recently completed book, A History of Medical Libraries and Medical Librarianship: From John Shaw Billings to the Digital Era, was published in 2021. In support of this project they received a group award through the NLM Michael E. DeBakey Fellowship in the History of Medicine in 2019.

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