The National Library of Medicine is where millions of people go for medical information every day. It’s also a physical place where hundreds of people work and thousands of people from all over the world visit for tours and programs throughout the year.
But how many people really see what’s around them as they walk the halls and grounds of this storied institution?
Here’s a look at some features and artwork in and around the two buildings that comprise the National Library of Medicine, plus an extra photo that’s not of NLM.
Can you recognize the outlier?
Next to the auditorium in the Lister Hill Center, you can find “Milestone Molecules in Medicine” by Jane W. Larson, who referred to herself as a “science-oriented potter.” The large ceramic piece was a gift of Dr. Morris F. Collen, a pioneer in the field of medical informatics whose name is on the award presented to NLM Director Dr. Patricia Flatley Brennan in November 2018.
What looks like a quilt is actually a massive painting. This mural called “Changes and Communications” was created for NLM and is in the lobby of the Lister Hill Center. Twenty-five feet high and 15 feet wide, it’s made of 16 panels of Belgian linen. The theme is art and science, and the elements relate to Egyptian and Greek cultures. The painting is by Alfred Julio Jensen (1903-1981), who was an American artist of Danish heritage born in Guatemala. In his obituary, the New York Times called him “a maverick whose work is not easily categorized,” and mentioned his association with Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and other recognized artists.
Every building on campus has a number. “So many buildings on campus are known by their numbers,” says Tara Mowery, chief of NLM Visitor Operations, and former branch chief of the NIH Visitor Center. “NLM is unusual because it’s better known for its name rather than number.” The Library occupies both Buildings 38 and 38A, the latter known as the Lister Hill Center or the Lister Hill Center for Biomedical Communication. Named for Joseph Lister Hill, a Democrat who represented Alabama as both congressman and senator, the Center was established in a joint resolution of Congress in 1968 as a research and development division of NLM. Many NLM staff also work in Building 45 and off campus in other NIH locations in North Bethesda.
“So many people walk on by without even noticing these drawings on marble,” said Tara Mowery, chief of NLM Visitor Operations,“but when they realize what’s there, it’s not unusual for them to take photographs.” Chiseled on the marble wall outside the History of Medicine Division are John Shaw Billings, the Library’s first director; Fielding H. Garrison, principal assistant librarian from 1912 to 1917; and Robert Fletcher, MD, principal assistant librarian from 1876 to 1912. Artist C. Paul Jennewein’s architectural sculptures also include the “Spirit of Justice” statue at the Rayburn Building in Washington, DC, and the polychrome figures in the pediment of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
A clone of the celebrated Tree of Hippocrates was planted in front of the National Library of Medicine on April 25, 2014. And the first gene sequence of the tree, which can be used for scientific research, was unveiled during the dedication ceremony. According to legend Hippocrates, regarded as the father of modern medicine, taught students under a tree on the Greek island of Cos thousands of years ago. When the Library was dedicated in 1961, the Greek ambassador presented NLM with a cutting from a descendant of the Cos tree. The tree was planted the following spring. In the 1980s, the tree began to deteriorate due to weather and a fungal disease. After decades of trying to restore the tree’s health and explore the possibility of a clone, the NIH landscape architect connected with the Champion Tree Project, (now the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive). Using cuttings from the gift tree, Archangel produced the clone that was planted to replace the original tree.
American sculptor and photographer Kenneth Snelson created “B-Tree” for the Library. One of his more famous artworks is “Needle Tower,” which is in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Incidentally, the Hirshhorn Museum is located where “Old Red Brick,” the Library’s previous building, once stood before the collection moved to the NIH campus.
Joseph Hamilton McNinch was the second director of the National Library of Medicine. He served from 1946 to 1949. The Library also has oil paintings of Leon Lloyd Gardner (1945-1946), Frank Bradway Rogers (1949-1963), Martin Marc Cummings (1964-1984), Donald A.B. Lindberg (1984-2015) and his wife, Mary, and other leaders.
It looks like it could be the floor of a swimming pool, but these turquoise mosaic tiles are on a ceiling. Look up as you enter or exit the Library (Building 38).
The cornerstone of the National Library of Medicine building is located in the building’s northeast corner. The date is significant in terms of US history and the Cold War. The lead architect, Walter H. Kilham, Jr., later recalled that he considered effects of a potential atomic bomb blast when designing the Library. His plans included reinforced concrete and walls, small windows, and three underground levels for book stacks. The Library could also be used as an air raid shelter.
This closeup of the artwork that graces the rotunda in Building 38 was conceived as a wedding of medical and architectural motifs. The artist Frans Wildenhain used clay from Kentucky, Colorado, and New Jersey to create this sculptural piece, which was installed in 1963.
You’re right. This is the photo that isn’t of NLM. You’ll find this tiered platform in the southeast corner of the William H. Natcher Building (NIH Bldg 45), which was dedicated in October 1994. In addition to offices for NLM and other NIH staff, Natcher has a 1,000-seat auditorium, a conference center, a cafeteria, and a visitor center.
You can’t set your watch by it, but the sundial outside the Library is just one reason to visit NLM’s medicinal garden, which was planted in 1976 as part of the US Bicentennial celebration. If you look closely, you may notice that the garden’s layout was patterned after the architecture of the NLM building.
The bust of John F. Kennedy in the lobby of Building 38 and the bust of Lister Hill in the lobby of Building 38A are by sculptor Robert Berks, who was frequently maligned for his “chewing gum style
.” The Kennedy bust is a replica of the large bust in the grand foyer of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Berks is also responsible for the large Einstein statue at the National Academy of Sciences, among other notable public works.
Chiseled in marble in the lobby area of Building 38 is a brief history of NLM.
NLM in Focus thanks Steve Greenberg in NLM’s History of Medicine Division, who provided these images. 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.