Twelve Things You Probably Didn’t Know About John Shaw Billings

In this week of featuring rock star medical librarians, we’re delighted to wish a happy 179th birthday to the librarian who could be considered the “king of rock” in the field.

On Thursday and Friday, we’ll bring you more current profiles and pictures.


Half-length portrait of John Shaw Billings wearing a red academic robe

This portrait of John Shaw Billings, painted by Cecilia Beaux, hangs in the NLM Reading Room.

The largest and arguably most distinguished portrait in the NLM Reading Room is of John Shaw Billings, the American physician, army officer, and polymath who led (and revolutionized) the Library of the Surgeon General’s Office of the Army for 30 years. That library later became the core of the National Library of Medicine—although the visionary Billings called the Surgeon General’s Office Library the “National Medical Library” 80 years before its official designation.

Dr. Billings (known affectionately as “St. John” among some in the NLM community) was born on April 12, 1838. Although many of our readers may know the general shape of his life and career, including his great twin legacies, the Index Medicus and the Index Catalogue of the Surgeon General’s Office, we’re celebrating his natal day with 12 interesting things about this storied figure.

  1. Billings went to college at the age of 14 and was a doctor by the age of 22. An Indiana native, young John was tutored by a clergyman in Latin, Greek, and geometry. The youngster was soon so proficient that he entered Miami University (Ohio) in 1852. In 1858, he enrolled at the Medical College of Ohio at Cincinnati, earning his degree in 1860. As Billings himself reported, he practically lived in the dissecting room and in the clinics, and the very first lecture he ever heard was a clinical lecture.
  2. Even as a young doctor, Billings’ knowledge and skill outpaced his peers. His thesis, The Surgical Treatment of Epilepsy, already bore the mark of his independent and original mind, and the medical school faculty held him in such high regard that he was appointed demonstrator of anatomy.
  3. As a surgeon in the Union Army, Billings served at two of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles. When the Civil War broke out soon after he graduated from medical school, the young Dr. Billings did not hesitate to offer his services to the Union cause. For more than a year, he served military hospitals in Washington, DC, and Philadelphia, but in 1863, he was transferred to field service with the Army of the Potomac. At the disastrous battle of Chancellorsville, Billings showed his superior qualities as surgeon and executive officer. He then followed the Army to the north and was present at the bloody battle of Gettysburg. The most difficult operations were often turned over to this exceptionally skilled young surgeon. In both settings, Billings and his assistants worked night and day, under artillery fire, to take care of the wounded.
  4. Billings was appointed director of the Library of the Surgeon General’s Office in 1865. The demands of the battlefield proved so arduous, even for someone with an iron nature like Dr. Billings’, that he was hospitalized briefly to convalesce. After a second stint with the Army of the Potomac under General Ulysses Grant, he was assigned to the Army Surgeon General’s Office in 1864, where he was to remain for more than 30 years and accomplish the most important work of his life.
Form letter with blanks for the writer to fill in the requested items

The letterhead used by Billings in the 1870s shows his intention of developing the collection into a national library, preceding by 80 years the official designation of the collection as the National Library of Medicine. (Appears in A history of the National Library of Medicine by Dr. Wyndham D. Miles, p. 35.)

  1. Billings craftily built a world-class medical library with limited funds. Billings shaped himself into a master buyer and exchanger, learning the ways of American, British, and European book dealers and agents. Billings would also send American military personnel and diplomats copies of American medical texts to take with them on international travels, so they could trade those volumes for works from other countries. As a result, the 6,000 volumes in the 1868 collection had grown to 50,000 books and pamphlets by just 1873. Dr. William B. Bean, Sir William Osler Professor of Medicine, Emeritus, at the University of Iowa, observed, “…here was a government organization run on a shoestring. A surprising book collection in the Army where, in one place, were assembled the major medical books, journals, and indeed the historic medical masterpieces of Western Civilization” (Miles, p. iv).
  2. Many practices Billings introduced continue at NLM in the 21st century, including closed stacks, special tours and instruction (which he himself gave to medical students), an exhibition program, and the installation of a dumbwaiter to move books and journals up and down between patrons and stacks.
  3. Billings helped shape today’s US Public Health Service. In 1869, he was tasked with turning around the Marine Hospital Service, which was in deplorable condition. Due to his efforts, this branch of governmental activity was completely reorganized, recast with a quasi-military structure, and rechristened the Public Health Service.
  4. During his time in the Surgeon General’s Office, Dr. Billings was the nation’s leading authority on public hygiene. Following epidemics of yellow fever, he made sanitary surveys of cities like Memphis, and he encouraged a searching sanitary survey of the entire nation, following the guidance of Hippocrates, who wrote, On Airs, Waters, and Places (Garrison, p. 391).
  5. The versatile Dr. Billings can also be called the father of medical and vital statistics in the United States. It was on his advice that medical statistics were included in the United States Census of 1880, and all to follow. Dr. Billings himself took an active part in drawing up the vital statistics for the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth Censuses.
  6. Billings played a part in the formation of IBM. While working with the Census data, Billings had an inspiration. He suggested that various statistical data “might be recorded on a single card or slip by punching small holes in it, and that these cards might then be assorted and counted by mechanical means according to any selected group of these perforations” (Garrison, p. 400). That suggestion was implemented by inventor Herman Hollerith, Dr. Billings’ assistant at the Census Bureau. The punch card system first used by Billings and staff was quickly adopted by census bureaus, insurance companies, and major corporations around the world. Hollerith, in turn, became a seminal figure in the development of data processing, forming a company that combined with others to form IBM.
A man is seated at desk, leaning back in armchair (view from the side)

Dr. Billings, shown here at the old Astor Library in New York, served as the first Director of the New York Public Library.

  1. Billings was an expert on hospital design. He is credited with designing the original buildings of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, which opened in 1889. In fact, its signature domed administration building bears Billings’ name. He designed other noted hospitals in DC, Philadelphia, and Boston, among other locations.
  2. Billings became the first director of the New York Public Library. After retiring from the Surgeon General’s Office in 1895, Billings united the libraries of New York to form the New York Public Library and instituted a branch library system to serve the boroughs of Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx.

By all counts, the supremely gifted Dr. Billings gained distinction in no less than six different fields: military and public hygiene, hospital construction and sanitary engineering, vital and medical statistics, medical bibliography and history, the advancement of medical education and the condition of medicine in the United States, and as a civil administrator (Garrison, p. 385).

Dr. Billings and his wife, Kate, had five children. He died on March 11, 1913 in New York City and was buried at Arlington Cemetery (Virginia).

More information
A History of the National Library of Medicine: The Nation’s Treasury of Medical Knowledge by Wyndham D. Miles (1982).
The definitive account of the National Library of Medicine and its antecedents.

Biographical Memoir of John Shaw Billings, 1838-1913 by S. Weir Mitchell, with The Scientific Work of John Shaw Billings by Fielding H. Garrison (1917).
Dr. Garrison, whose portrait hangs in the NLM History of Medicine Division Incunabula Room, was Billings’ friend and assistant in the Surgeon General’s Library for many years. Both works were presented to the National Academy of Sciences at its annual meeting in 1916.

By Melanie Modlin, NLM in Focus writer

2 thoughts on “Twelve Things You Probably Didn’t Know About John Shaw Billings

    • Thanks for your comment, Rob! We around here heartily concur! We think there’s enough material on the achievements of JSB that several follow-up articles may be in order. We are also contemplating a serious Google Doodle campaign for the great man’s 180th birthday in 2018. Watch this space!

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