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John Shaw Billings

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Title: John Shaw Billings  
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Subject: 1913, Library and information scientist, Library Hall of Fame, Army Medical Museum and Library, Library of the Surgeon General's Office
Collection: 1838 Births, 1913 Deaths, American Book Editors, American Civil War Surgeons, American Librarians, American Military Physicians, American Physicians, American Surgeons, Burials at Arlington National Cemetery, Fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Miami University Alumni, New York Public Library People, People from New York City, People from Switzerland County, Indiana, People of Indiana in the American Civil War, Presidents of the American Library Association, United States Army Officers, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine Alumni
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John Shaw Billings

John Shaw Billings
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
Portrait in the National Library of Medicine by Cecilia Beaux 1895.

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.


  • Biography 1
  • Statistics 2
  • Works 3
  • See also 4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


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]

  • " 
  • Principles of Ventilation and Heating (1884)
  • Mortality and Vital Statistics of the United States (1885)
  • Medical Museums" (1888) Online at Google Books[10]
  • National Medical Dictionary (Two volumes, 1889)
  • Description of the Johns Hopkins Hospital (1890)
  • Social Statistics of Cities (Six volumes, for the Eleventh Census)
  • Some Library Problems of Tomorrow (1902)
  • Physiological Aspects of the Liquor Problem (1903)

See also


  1. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 20, 2011. 
  2. ^  
  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.


  • 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

  • "John Shaw Billings".  
  • National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoir
  • John Shaw Billings Correspondence Collection 1862-1912 -- National Library of Medicine finding aid
  • John Shaw Billings Papers, in the Adjutant General's Office Records (RG 94) in the National Archives 1861-1895 -- National Library of Medicine finding aid
  • John S. Billings correspondence in the New York Public Library 1866-1913 -- National Library of Medicine finding aid
  • John S. Billings documents and letters in the National Archives 1861-1895 -- National Library of Medicine finding aid
  • John Shaw Billings Correspondence with Libraries of the American Philosophical Society and the College of Physicians of Philadelphia Microfilm Copies 1878-1916 -- National Library of Medicine finding aid
  • John Shaw Billings Papers at the University of South Carolina 1856-1966 -- National Library of Medicine finding aid
  • John Shaw Billings Papers at New York Public Library [microform 1854-1913] -- National Library of Medicine Finding aid
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