Betsy Humphreys: Farewell to a Leader Who Set the Standard

As Betsy Humphreys was packing up boxes for archiving at the National Library of Medicine, she took a break to talk to NLM in Focus about her career.

Humphreys, who retires as deputy director on June 30, will be remembered for many contributions, including serving as acting director of NLM, the Unified Medical Language System (UMLS) project, NLM’s activities related to health data standards, and for contributing to the development of NIH and HHS policies on health information technology, public access to research results, and clinical trial registration and results reporting.

Colleagues praise her persistence, her humility, her negotiating skills, her appreciation of all points of views, her ability to build consensus, and her work ethic.

The beginning

The year was 1972.

NLM had recently launched MEDLINE and Humphreys was finishing her master’s degree in library science at the University of Maryland. One of her professors knew that NLM was interested in hiring a recent graduate and urged her to apply.

Nine people sitting around a conference table

Humphreys (2nd from left) joins her colleagues at a 1980 meeting of the MEDLARS task force.

When Humphreys arrived at NLM for the job interview, her ability to secure the position hinged on her ability to do two things.

The interviewer said, “We’re looking for people who can think and write.”

Humphreys was hired.

She showed up for work on January 7, 1973, for a job that was supposed to last four or five months.

More than 44 years later, Humphreys has never lost her enthusiasm, respect, and love of NLM and its people.

The best of Betsy?

When asked, Humphreys couldn’t pick out the one thing she’s most proud of.

It’s impossible.

“If I had to generalize, I’m proud of the times when I developed a strategy to accomplish something that was going to take multiple years and involve a lot of people, and that I stayed with it and it actually happened,” Humphreys said with a smile.

Fortunately for NLM, many projects became possible in part because of Humphreys’ foresight and her ability to strategize and motivate.

Early in her career, she was instrumental in building a national serial-holdings database so NLM could automatically route document requests to and from holding libraries.

To do this, Humphreys not only worked on developing a master serial system, she figured out how to make maintenance of the holdings data affordable and sustainable. The database was built by 1982. DOCLINE was implemented in 1985.

“You can imagine how thrilled I was when it turned out that you could actually route the documents requested based on the data in this database,” she said. “That was one of the great days of my life when I found out that, lo and behold, the algorithm could actually use the data and route them.”

Humphreys stands behind a short stack of books while Lindberg sits in front of a computer

Dr. Lindberg (r) and then-Deputy Associate Director of Library Operations Betsy Humphreys tout the release of the Unified Medical Language System in 1990.

Humphreys also played a key role in the Unified Medical Language System (UMLS) and served as the UMLS’s first project officer. UMLS made it possible for computers to behave as if they understand biomedical meaning. She said, “The whole project was wonderful!”

Another example of a long-range plan reaching fruition is the federal strategy for terminology standards for electronic health records. “I first outlined what I thought we needed to do to get there in 1991 or 1992,” she said. “I would say in my mind we essentially got there in 2010, 2011, when the first requirements went into effect for terminology standards for meaningful use of electronic health records.”

Among other long-term goals requiring Humphreys’ negotiating and consensus building skills were expanding greater public access to published journal literature, the notice of proposed rulemaking for ClinicalTrials.gov, and sharing NLM data via APIs and other methods.

In addition, Humphreys embraced health literacy throughout her career by bringing together experts in the field and working to make sure the Library’s holdings and data were as accessible as possible. “Even some people may not know they need information,” she said, “we might as well make it easy for those who do know to find information.”

A light on others

Humphreys beams when she talks about the people of NLM. The fact that she could encourage and support many staff members in their careers brings her joy.

“I have on a number of occasions moved along someone else’s work—got it out in the public eye or moved it into a place where more people could use it or brought in some other contacts to promote broader adoption. I did that with the SPECIALIST lexicon and lexical tools, the Journal Article Tag Suite (JATS) standard, and others,” she explained.

She also consistently embraced diversity in the workplace, seeking to ensure that new hires, committees, and panels reflected a range of backgrounds and viewpoints.

Mentors

Humphreys is quick to compliment others and acknowledge their contributions to her career. “I worked with a lot of people who were very willing to share their expertise,” she said.

One early mentor who stands out is Marie Pinho, a systems analyst in the Office of Computer and Communication Systems when Humphreys’ career began.

At the time, she said, “It was not uncommon for people to fling around IT and computer buzzwords as if they knew what they talking about.”

Always curious and wanting to understand, Humphreys would approach Pinho for information. She would ask her everything from “What in the world are they talking about?” to “They’re saying it can’t be done, but, of course, it can be. How can it be done?”

Humphreys explained, “She never said it couldn’t be done when she meant ‘I don’t want to do it.’ She was not someone who felt that holding onto information gave her stature. It was great to work with someone who really wanted you to understand.”

Humphreys also reached out to and was helped by other mentors including former NLM director Don Lindberg and previous associate directors of library operations Lois Ann Colaianni and Joseph Leiter.

What kept Humphreys here? 

When asked why she stayed at NLM, Humphreys said the answer was simple.

Betsy smiles broadly

Betsy Humphreys at her retirement ceremony, June 19, 2017.

“A combination of the mission and the great people I get to work with.”

Plus, she added, “I’ve never been bored,” pointing out the Library’s work encompasses everything from an 11th century manuscript to the next generation of data science.

“It’s fun!”

Humphreys leaves NLM with enough memories, stories, and accomplishments to easily fill 44 years.

As her interview with NLM in Focus ended, Humphreys repeated, “I’ve been fortunate, very fortunate.”

And so has NLM.

 

Click here to view a three-minute video tribute to Betsy Humphreys.