Laughter at the National Library of Medicine?

The National Library of Medicine sounds like a serious place and it is. And yet—we do enjoy moments of levity. We can and do laugh at ourselves—or at least chuckle.

From creative acronyms to cartoon penguins in a bathtub, most days we enjoy our work—and each other. Sometimes we even have a BLAST.

It’s probably part of our DNA.

Because, wouldn’t you know it—there’s a MeSH Heading for “wit and humor.”

But, of course.

So, whether you’re ready for them or not, here are a few things that tickle our funny bone.

Gag gifts—perfect for those who have everything

chemical structure for the fictitious chemical methylethyl terribleWhat do you get a man who gave over 31 years of his life to leading NLM?

A fictitious chemical, of course!

It’s better than it sounds.

Methylethyl terrible did, after all, arise from the scientific mind of former NLM Director Donald A.B. Lindberg, MD, who would reference the noxious (albeit fake) substance whenever he needed a chemical to quickly demonstrate a point. So, as a parting gift on the occasion of his retirement, NLM’s ChemIDPlus team added to the database a record for the toxic compound, complete with registry number and chemical structure.

Two years later, when NLM Acting Director Betsy Humphreys retired, the Regenstrief Institute followed suit by bestowing on Humphreys an honorary LOINC code, 86466-0: Maestro of scalable info infrastructure. She was, after all, a leader who set the standard.

Dry Wit—We’ll take it

cartoon rendering of the human circulatory, nervous and digestive systemsOften the people of NLM are as witty as they are wise.

Colleen Bollin told NLM in Focus that one of the reasons she was excited to work at NLM was because she “felt reasonably confident that [she] wasn’t going to lose any internal organs here.”

But the driest of wit of all may belong to Jim Ostell, head of NCBI and a man who once thought that “there was no future in computers.”

Strange Names—We got ‘em

Grateful Dead backstage pass

You wouldn’t expect a Federal institution to pay homage to the Grateful Dead, but NLM couldn’t resist. Seeking a name for its user-friendly interface to the literature databases, the Library looked past such ho-hum suggestions as “NLMSearch” and “PCMEDLARS” and the other musical options “TalkingHeads” and “DiscoMed” to choose “Grateful Med” in 1986. “It is just too good to pass up,” opined then-Director Dr. Lindberg, who followed his decision by taking an extended leave to follow the band. (Don’t be too surprised. He was still pretty young then, exhibiting only a “Touch of Grey” at the time.)

NLM’s Grateful Med lived on for a few years after the band it was named after, officially retiring in 2001. The bimonthly newsletter for Grateful Med users, Gratefully Yours, had a short, four-year run (1994-1998).

Go West!

a single cowboy boot of snakeskin and leatherNot to be outdone with the pop culture references, NLM’s document delivery crew looked to Pulitzer Prize winner Larry McMurtry for their inspiration when the time came to name their new service. With the undeniable parallels between corralling journal articles and herding cattle, the title of McMurtry’s best-seller Lonesome Dove morphed into “Loansome Doc,” the perfect blend of library, literary, and medical punster-ism. The rest, as they say, is history.

Does that make Tugger a herding dog?

A Jack Russell Terrier

Tugger, the long-standing mascot to NLM’s automated interlibrary loan system, DOCLINE, actually got the job to help make the system seem as friendly and as accessible as possible—a big concern when computers were still new on the scene. Even today, when people log on, they’re greeted by Tugger’s picture, a soothing, consistent presence in the high-stress world of ILL. Says DOCLINE team lead Elisabeth Lubar Unger, “He actually has quite a following.”

So that makes Tugger a therapy dog, doesn’t it?

Speaking of Therapy—A Chocolate Rx?

four small squares of chocolateHistoric books from NLM’s vast collection often contain advice and illustrations that can make us wish for medical care from previous centuries.

For example, a few of us are ready to embrace the advice about chocolate in the book The Indian nectar, or, A discourse concerning chocolata by Oxford-trained physician Henry Stubbe (1632–1676) who said that “it chears the Spirits, begets good Blood.”

Pass the Ghirardelli.


a garlic bulb and clovesHalloween might supply that chocolate fix, but it unfortunately introduces other problems—vampires among them. The garlic trick seems to work—we have some growing in the NLM herb garden and we haven’t seen any vampires at the Library recently—but should the pesky bloodsuckers become immune, the NLM garden has plenty of stakes.

More music, this time for the holidays

treble clefWhat can a national library do to mark the big December holiday season? Last year, we were humming along to the NLM version of “Jingle Bells”—“dashing through the stacks, retrieving as we go”—and spinning a dreidel to “Data, Data, Data.” Who knows what creative gifts we’ll unwrap this year!

We also celebrate other holidays.

Including April Fool’s Day. For real.

Need proof?

Read ‘em and weep. Or laugh. As you prefer.

How about those penguins in the bathtub?

five cartoon penguins peak over the edge of a clawfoot bathtubThey’re just as silly as you’d expect. A Zest for Pests tackles a serious topic—pesticides—by featuring penguins in the bathtub, a snoring blue man, and even a polar bear.

Together they’re just one more way NLM injects levity and humor into our daily work to better connect with the people we’re here to help.

NLM in Focus is a product of the NLM Office of Communications and Public Liaison. You’re invited to subscribe to receive word of future articles. We welcome your comments, likes, and shares.

6 thoughts on “Laughter at the National Library of Medicine?

  1. I have a t-shirt that shows a man pointing to a map of Europe that’s captioned: “Another day at the National Library of Medicine: Gene…mapping”

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  3. Pingback: 2018’s Seasons of Stories from NLM in Focus | NLM in Focus

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