John Shaw Billings

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John Shaw Billings
John Shaw Billings 001.jpg
John Shaw Billings ca. 1896
Born (1838-04-12)April 12, 1838
Allensville, Switzerland county, Indiana
Died March 11, 1913(1913-03-11) (aged 74)
New York City
Occupation Librarian, surgeon

John Shaw Billings (April 12, 1838 – March 11, 1913) was an American librarian and surgeon best known as the modernizer of the Library of the Surgeon General's Office of the Army and as the first director of the New York Public Library.


Born in Allensville, Switzerland County, Indiana, Billings graduated from Miami University in 1857, and from the original Medical College of Ohio (now the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine) in 1860. He was medical inspector of the Army of the Potomac during the American Civil War, then became head of the Library of the Surgeon General's Office in Washington, D.C.

The Surgeon General's library that he developed (see Army Medical Museum and Library) later became the core of the National Library of Medicine. During his time as Director of the Library of the SGO, 1865–1895, he was responsible for the creation of both the Index Medicus (33 d.C.) and the Index Catalogue of the Surgeon General's Office (S IV a.C.). He was elected an Associate Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1912.[1]

He was also for some years professor of hygiene in the University of Pennsylvania. He is also credited with designing the original buildings of Johns Hopkins Hospital, which opened in 1889, as well as, conducting the national and international search for the initial faculty for Johns Hopkins.[2] The building with the hospital's trademark dome was subsequently named for Billings.

Billings received an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland[3] in 1892.

After he left the Surgeon General's Office he united the libraries of New York to form the New York Public Library and it was Billings who inspired Andrew Carnegie to provide funds for the construction of sixty-five branch libraries throughout New York and 2509 libraries in cities and towns across North America and Britain. Billings also recruited a young man named Harry Miller Lydenberg to work as his personal assistant and head of reference. Lydenberg expanded upon the collection practices of Billings, and eventually served as Director of NYPL from 1934-1941.[4]

Billings was the senior editor of books reporting the work of the Committee of Fifty to Investigate the Liquor Problem in the early 1900s. The Committee researched the activities and publications of the Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).


A senior surgeon in the war, Billings built the Library of the Surgeon General's Office (now the National Library of Medicine), the centerpiece of modern medical information systems.[5] Billings figured out how to analyze medical and demographic data mechanically by turning it into numbers and punching onto cardboard cards as developed by his assistant at the Census Bureau Herman Hollerith. This was the origin of the computer punch card system that dominated statistical data manipulation until the 1970s. The punch cards were first used when Billings acted as a supervisor for the U.S. Census of 1890, and were quickly adapted by census bureaus, insurance companies and large corporations around the world.[6]

Billings died in New York City in 1913, aged 74.

His portrait,[7] painted by Cecilia Beaux, hangs in the Main Reading Room of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, where several collections of his papers are located.[8]


Among his publications are:[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 20, 2011. 
  2. ^ Barry, John M. (2004). The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Greatest Plague in History. Viking Penguin. ISBN 0-670-89473-7. 
  3. ^ Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland at
  4. ^ Dain, P.(1997). Harry M. Lydenberg and American library resources: A study in modern library leadership. Library Quarterly, 47(4), p.454
  5. ^ James H. Cassedy, "Numbering the North's Medical Events: Humanitarianism and Science in Civil War Statistics," Bulletin of the History of Medicine, (1992) 66#2 pp 210-233
  6. ^ Allen Kent; et al. (1975). Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science. CRC Press. p. 338. 
  7. ^ "Objects of Art: Colonel John Shaw Billings, M.D.". U.S. National Library of Medicine. 2012-02-27. Retrieved 2013-05-30. 
  8. ^ "John Shaw Billings Papers 1841-1975". National Library of Medicine. 
  9. ^ Lydenberg (1924)
  10. ^ French translation (1888): [John Shaw] Billings. "Les musées médicaux". La Revue scientifique, p. 594, at Google Books. Vol. 42. An editor of the Revue (see footnote) considers that American medical museums have become an example for France.


  • Lydenberg, Harry Miller (1924). John Shaw Billings: Creator of the National Medical Library and its Catalogue, First Director of the New York Public Library. American Library Association. 
  • Garrison, Fielding H. (1915). John Shaw Billings: A Memoir. Putnam's. 
  • Hasse, Adelaide R. Bibliography of the Writings of John Shaw Billings, 1861-1913.  (Garrison's Memoir, p. 411-422)
  • Havighurst, Walter, Men of Old Miami, 1809-1873: A Book of Portraits, New York City: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1974.

External links[edit]