The End of an Era: Director Lindberg Retires After 31 Years Leading NLM

Dr. Lindberg at podium speaks at NIH farewell tribute

Dr. Lindberg speaks at the March 30 NIH farewell tribute. Photo by Bill Branson.

National Library of Medicine Director Donald A.B. Lindberg, MD retired after 31 years heading the world’s largest medical library.

He was the library’s longest serving director and one of the longest-serving leaders at the National Institutes of Health, the library’s parent organization.

Dr. Lindberg’s last day on the job was March 31, 2015. The day before, hundreds of people from the library, the NIH, and from across the country gathered at NIH’s Natcher Center to pay tribute to Lindberg.

The program began with video highlights from his swearing-in ceremony speech, perhaps more remarkable today than in 1984.

Lindberg’s predictions for the future of medical information became reality

Lindberg predicted a time when “the book or journal on the shelf will become increasingly too remote for immediate patient-care decisions,” and the computers will become increasingly useful; when “medical informatics will emerge as a formal research field and academic discipline;” and when progress in “cancer research and molecular biology will be to the average citizen not an idle curiosity or newspaper headline, but a matter of immediate personal concern.”

“I hope you saw how true and prescient his observations were,” noted NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD. “Don created programs that transformed our approach to information.”

“Your influence has been profound,” said Anthony S. Fauci, MD, director of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “The kind of capabilities you put at our fingertips made what we do possible.” Drs. Vivian Pinn, Harold Varmus, John Gallin and Roger Glass were the other NIH leaders who spoke of their collaborations with Lindberg.

Public access to biomedical information increased under Lindberg’s leadership

Lindberg came to NLM from the University of Missouri. Trained as a pathologist, he went on to become a pioneer in the use of computers and medicine and the founding president of the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA).

During his years at NLM, the public, health providers, and scientists gained new or improved access to medical literature via PubMed and PubMed Central; to clinical trials and their results via ClinicalTrials.gov; and to consumer health information via MedlinePlus. And, his crowning achievement was the establishment of the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) to provide access to biomedical and genomic information.

NCBI began with a conversation between Lindberg and Florida Congressman Claude Pepper. Peter Reinecke, who worked for Pepper, recalled the day Lindberg came to Capitol Hill to convince Pepper to sponsor NCBI legislation. “Dr. Lindberg immediately captivated Congressman Pepper with his explanation of why the Center was so important; why it needed to be at the National Library of Medicine; and the impact it could have,” Reinecke said. “Congressman Pepper immediately got it.”

NCBI director Dr. David Lipman said Lindberg “was willing to take risks because he really understood the benefits. I feel lucky to have reported to Don for over 25 years.”

Martha Fishel, chief of the library’s Public Services Division, called Lindberg a “creative thinker” who had the courage to fight for his ideas and the ideas of others so they had the best chance of getting done.

Lindberg influenced the fields of librarianship and informatics

NLM Deputy Director Betsy L. Humphreys, who is serving as acting director, said “she’s had the great pleasure and privilege of working for, and being mentored by, Don Lindberg.” She praised him for recognizing the need for deep engagement with people outside NLM who rely on the library’s services. Librarians, informatics researchers and health providers came from across the country for the tribute.

Linda Walton, president of the Medical Library Association, spoke on behalf of health sciences librarians and thanked Lindberg for the new opportunities he brought to the profession. “From end-user searching to bioinformatics to disaster preparedness, you have led the way for librarians to develop and expand their expertise through the use of technology,” she said. “We have been, and continue to be, the envy of the other library specialties as we embrace new roles and expand our knowledge base.”

Lindberg’s support for informatics researchers also was recognized. Douglas Fridsma, MD, PhD, AMIA’s president, noted he was among the legions of fellows who benefited from Lindberg’s support for informatics training. “The informatics community had great hopes for Don as he took this position and I think they have been spectacularly realized.”

NLM Family Gives Lindberg a Fond Farewell

A few days before the NIH-wide event, the NLM family hosted its own farewell to Dr. and Mrs. Lindberg. Staff contributed written notes and photos to a memory book and recorded good wishes that were compiled into a video presented to the Lindbergs. Senior staff also presented them with mementoes, including a piece of “Old Red,” the red brick building that housed the library from 1887-1962 when it was located along the National Mall.

“Thank you for being our NLM family,” Mary Lindberg told the large crowd gathered in the Lister Hill Center.

“It’s a wonderful place because of you. I’ve loved every day here.” Dr. Lindberg said. “I think you’ll continue to serve the country and the world well.”

By Shana Potash, NLM in Focus editor

Related information

Donald A.B. Lindberg, MD Oral History (Updated April 9, 2015)
Videos from the NIH/NLM tribute to Dr. Donald Lindberg (March 30, 2015)
Betsy L. Humphreys named Acting Director (April 6, 2015)
NLM Board of Regents Approves Resolution Honoring NLM Director Lindberg (February 23, 2015)
U.S. Senate Tribute to Dr. Donald Lindberg (December 9, 2014)
NIH Director’s Statement on Dr. Lindberg’s retirement (November 6, 2014)