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The Boston Medical Library
James Read Chadwick, 1884, Portrait Collection. From the Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.
The first attempt to organize a free-standing library of medical literature in Boston was made by Doctors John Collins Warren and James Jackson in 1805, but the independence of this Boston Medical Library
was short-lived. Although catalogs of its
books and journals were published, the collections were absorbed by the Boston Athenaeum in
Over the course of the nineteenth century,
as the move toward scientific medicine promoted an explosive growth of medical literature,
physicians perceived a need for a separate library to serve the Boston community. In 1875,
Dr. James Read Chadwick formally organized the Boston Medical Library Association—later the
Boston Medical Library—to collect books, pamphlets, and medical periodicals and make this
material accessible to the practicing physician. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes served as the
BML’s first president and was one of its foremost advocates. It quickly became one of the
largest medical library collections in the United States. Today, the Boston Medical Library
is a physicians’ non-profit organization incorporated "to establish and maintain a Library
of Medicine and the Allied Sciences and the promotion and advancement of medical science and
education." It serves as a resource for the medical school faculties and students of Harvard
Medical School, Boston University Medical School, Tufts University School of Medicine and
the University of Massachusetts Medical School. In 1982, the Boston Medical Library also
became the library for the Massachusetts Medical Society.
For more information on the Boston Medical
Library, please click here
The Harvard Medical Library
Periodical Reading Room Harvard Medical Library, November 1955.00096.097. From the Harvard Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.
The origins of the Harvard Medical Library
can be traced back to the formation of the Medical School itself in 1782 when the Harvard
Corporation hoped to enrich the University by the acquisition of "a collection of the most
approved authors in anatomy, surgery, physic, chemistry, etc.— a collection more perfect
than any in America." In 1800, Ward Nicholas Boylston presented Harvard with some 1,100
volumes and anatomical plates and preparations, forming the nucleus of the Boylston Medical
Library, which was held by the University in Cambridge after the removal of the Medical
School to Boston in 1810. The true Harvard Medical Library was founded in 1816 with a
donation of volumes from the personal libraries of members of the faculty, including Doctors
James Jackson and John Collins Warren, and was principally designed to serve the needs of
the students. In 1884, the Medical School encouraged the individual academic departments of
Anatomy, Physiology, Chemistry, Pathological Anatomy, Surgery, and General Medicine to form
their own working libraries, and it was not for another thirty years that a central library
was formed, amalgamating many of these disparate collections into one facility for the use
of the entire medical community. Over time, the resources of several separate subject
collections, such as the George Burgess Magrath Library of Legal Medicine and the Bowditch
Library of Physiology and Biochemistry, along with the collection of the Harvard School of
Public Health, were also added to the central library.
The Francis A. Countway Library of
Moving from the Boston Medical Library into the Countway building, 1965. 00098.414. From the Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.
In 1958, Miss Sanda Countway provided a
substantial gift to the Harvard Medical School for the construction of a new library in
memory of her brother, Francis A. Countway, the former president of Lever Brothers, Inc. The
Harvard Medical Library then entered into a formal agreement with the Boston Medical Library
to combine their staffs, services, and collections into one modern biomedical library
facility. The Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine opened in 1965 and ranks as one of the
largest medical libraries in the world. It serves as a resource in clinical medicine, the
biomedical sciences, dentistry, and public health, providing historical and modern
information to students and faculty of the Harvard Medical School, School of Dental
Medicine, and School of Public Health, affiliated institutions, members and fellows of the
Boston Medical Library and Massachusetts Medical Society, and the scholarly community around
The Center for the History of Medicine
Holmes Hall, Center for the History of Medicine. Len Rubenstein Photography, courtesy of Simmons College, 2003.
The Rare Books and Special Collections Department of the Countway Library was internationally renowned. From the Boston Medical Library, for example, came one of the largest collections of medical incunabula (books printed in the first fifty years after the production of the Gutenberg Bible) in the world, the medical libraries of Oliver Wendell Holmes and Friedrich Tiedemann, the Kennedy Collection of Early English Medical Books, and the Hyams Collection of Medical Judaica. From the Harvard Medical Library came such holdings as the library of the Warren family, the manuscripts of Benjamin Waterhouse, the Historical Collection in Radiology, and the extensive archives of Harvard Medical School.
Since the agreement that established the Countway some fifty years ago, curators have continued to preserve, provide access to, and acquire rare books, manuscripts, archives, and artifacts to enhance the research value of the collections. In 1999, the department assumed custodial responsibility for the Warren Anatomical Museum, a teaching collection of anatomical specimens, models, and instruments established in 1847 through the gift of John Collins Warren. The Warren Museum, which spans the late eighteenth century through the twentieth century, adds key perspectives to our understanding of the history of medical education and the development of modern American medicine. In 2004, in recognition of the integrated nature of its activities, collections, and audiences, the department was renamed the Center for the History of Medicine.
Each year, more than a thousand researchers seek out the Center's resources in pursuit of a broad variety of inquiries. Thousands more view the Warren Museum Gallery and Center exhibits featuring rare materials from the Center's holdings or attend the symposia or other special events designed to enable the history of medicine to inform contemporary medicine and society.