NLM’s Wizard of Ahs: Steve Greenberg

You never know what Steve Greenberg will pull out of his bag of tricks or, more precisely, off the shelves of the National Library of Medicine’s (NLM) History of Medicine Division (HMD).

Displaying treasures to guests visiting the division’s rare book room, he may show a first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), printed on poor paper that conveys the publisher’s low expectations for the work. Or Florence Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing, which has never gone out of print since its first publication, also in 1859.

Inside the HMD Incunabula Room, and under the watchful gaze of Dr. Fielding Garrison, acclaimed medical historian and Principal Assistant Librarian (1912-1917) of the Army Medical Library, an NLM antecedent, Dr. Greenberg shows guests the Nobel Medal won by the late Dr. Marshall Nirenberg, and related photographs.

Inside the HMD Incunabula Room, and under the watchful gaze of Dr. Fielding Garrison, acclaimed medical historian and Principal Assistant Librarian (1912-1917) of the Army Medical Library, an NLM antecedent, Steve Greenberg shows guests the Nobel Medal won by the late Dr. Marshall Nirenberg, and related photographs.

Depending on his guests’ interests, Greenberg may bring out the world-shaking 1953 article in Nature, in which Watson and Crick describe the double-helix structure of DNA. Then, as an exclamation point, he will show the actual 1968 Nobel Prize medal awarded to NIH scientist Dr. Marshall Nirenberg, whose elaborate calculations deciphered the genetic code. He might also go further back in his medical literature time machine, showing a Revolutionary War-era letter (for more on that, please see addendum below), or a 13th century manuscript with incredibly small hand lettering and gorgeous, gilded illuminated letters. Or NLM’s oldest holding of all, Razi’s The Comprehensive Book on Medicine (Kitab al-Hawi fi al-tibb), handwritten in Arabic and dated 1094. Yes, there are literally “oohs” and “ahs.”

If medical history had a pied piper, it would be Steve Greenberg. Guests on his tours are helpless to resist his blend of storytelling, wit, history lessons, and present-day observations.

“All of my tours are done informally,” said Greenberg, the Coordinator of Public Services for HMD, who conducts some 75 to 100 of them annually for students, librarians, scientists, and others visiting NLM. “That keeps it fresh, for the guests and for me.”

Greenberg’s broad education helps explain his vast and varied store of knowledge. Born in New York City, he graduated from City College of New York. He holds an MA in sociology from the New School for Social Research, New York, an MA in late medieval/early modern European history from Fordham University, and a PhD in early modern European history, also from Fordham. In 1991, he completed a library degree at Columbia University, where he studied rare book librarianship with Terry Belanger. He came to the National Library of Medicine in 1992, serving as Reference/Collection Access Librarian in the History of Medicine Division until 2003, when he assumed his current post as HMD’s Coordinator of Public Services.

On a typical tour Greenberg will start with an overview of the History of Medicine Division and its rich holdings, which include books printed before 1914, pre-1871 journals, historical pamphlets, dissertations, and government reports, manuscripts dating from the 11th century, modern manuscripts (1601-present), historical videos, films, prints, and photographs. One common element in all of his tours is a warm invitation to come view items in the collection. “We’re a public resource. If you want to see anything, all you have to do is show up,” he’ll say with a grin.

From there, he may segue into a brief history of the manuscript and its format, describing variations in quality depending on the talent of the scribe, or explaining how the wide variety in size and style of lettering meant that manuscripts could not have page numbers, tables of contents and other reference points that became common with the advent of printing.

Next follows a brief history of printing, delineating the contributions of the Chinese and Japanese (the printing process itself) from Gutenberg (the game-changing movable type), and the difference in early printing between northern and southern Europe. Moving on, Greenberg manages a master class in media—a description of paper, parchment, vellum, and other materials used in both manuscripts and printed works—a summary and history displaying both brevity and insight on a topic that often requires weighty tomes.

Greenberg first came to his love of history through his own research—in particular, how information circulated among people in mid-17th century England. This storied time of Oliver Cromwell and the English civil wars was also a time of rowdy, rambunctious pamphlets—sometimes thousands of them on the same subject—that provided most of the news of the day in a time of shifting, labyrinthine political alliances.

How things have changed, even during his own history, Greenberg notes. In 1983, when he earned his PhD, the Internet was just a technical glimmer on the horizon. Today, using Internet technology, there are projects aiming to scan every book that could possibly be scanned within the rules and interpretations of copyright.

Dr. Steve Greenberg addresses guests in the History of Medicine Reading Room.

Steve Greenberg addresses guests in the History of Medicine Reading Room.

“Some libraries collect books, manuscripts, and printed materials because they are rare and beautiful, but our real job here is to document the history of medicine,” commented Greenberg. “Some of the materials we collect are rare and beautiful, but they also contribute to understanding the history of medicine.” He cites versions of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in different languages, showing how Darwinian theory grew and was accepted as it was translated over the years into different languages. (NLM has recently acquired first editions of that seminal work in German, Japanese, and Russian.)

Not surprisingly, Greenberg is widely published, making scholarly contributions on such topics as the history of printing and publishing, the history of medicine and surgery in Europe and the United States, the history of medical librarianship, and the history of medical photography. He is the recipient of numerous awards including the NIH Award of Merit; a Best Article Award from Archivists and Librarians in the History of the Health Sciences for a work on the history of NLM’s Index Medicus and IndexCat, which he co-wrote with fellow NLM staffer (and wife) Patricia Gallagher; and the Medical Library Association’s Murray Gottlieb Prize for the essay, “The ‘Dreadful Visitation’: Public Health and Public Awareness in 17th Century London.”

Michael North, head of the Rare Books & Early Manuscripts Section in the History of Medicine Division, has worked with Greenberg for many years. “He is one of the most knowledgeable members of the Library’s staff about the history of the book and printing, aside from his expertise in the history of medicine,” he observed. “He enthusiastically represents the Library to onsite visitors and to the public in so many important venues, ranging from scholarly conferences to public gatherings. He is a huge asset to the Library and its collections wherever he goes.”

“It’s a real privilege to work Dr. Greenberg and to support his excellent engagement with members of the public, who are always welcome to visit us to learn more about our collections and programs,” commented History of Medicine Division Chief Dr. Jeffrey Reznick. “His enthusiasm and his dedication are infectious. And that makes the experience of working with him, and learning from him, a history of medicine event in itself! NLM, and the public we serve, are really fortunate to be able to benefit from his experience and expertise.”

To book a tour of the History of Medicine Division with Dr. Steve Greenberg, please contact the NLM History of Medicine Division, 301.496.5405,

First page of a letter from the Revolutionary WarOh, yes, about that Revolutionary War letter. It’s part of the NLM collection, handwritten and looking a little dog-eared, as it was likely stashed in the saddle-bag of a soldier, riding his horse to make the delivery. The one-page missive from an army officer asks a member of the Continental Congress to support the search for a new Surgeon General, since the post has remained open a while and the health of the troops is in jeopardy. (Apparently Congress in the late 18th century functioned a bit like our own. The request was not granted, despite the author’s most ardent plea.) With appropriate flourish, Greenberg serves up another exciting historical nugget—he flips over the letter, allowing his guests discover for themselves the identity of that army officer. The signature reads, “G. Washington.”

By NLM in Focus writers Thomas Conuel and Melanie Modlin, with assistance from Mary Ann Leonard