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fOHN SHAW BILLINGS: FORGOTTEN HERO OF AMERICAN MEDICINE A. MC GEHEE HARVEY* It seems to me that this school should aim to produce quality, and not quantity; and that the seal of its diploma should be a guarantee that its possessor is not only a well-educated physician, in the fullest sense of the word, but that he has learned to think and investigate for himself, and is therefore prepared to undertake, without danger offailurefrom not knowing how to begin, the study of some of the problems still awaiting solution. [John Shaw Billings] When John Shaw Billings died in New York City on March 11, 1913, the newspaper notices of his death gave principal attention to his 17 years of pioneer work in the development of the New York Public Library , of which he was director. Little notice was paid to the things for which he should be best remembered by all physicians and scientists. He was the most eminent bibliographer in the history of medicine; he planned and organized the greatest of medical libraries and designed some of the finest hospitals and laboratories of modern times. He was equally eminent as sanitarian, statistician, war surgeon, and medical historian ; by all measurements he was one of the ablest of civil administrators . William Henry Welch placed the work of Billings in perspective when he spoke as follows: "I have been asked on more than one occasion what have been the really great contributions of this country to medical knowledge. I have given this matter some thought and think that four should be named: (1) the discovery of anesthesia, (2) the discovery of insect transmission of disease, (3) the development of the modern Public Health Laboratory, and all that the term implies, (4) the Army Medical Library and its Index Catalogue, and this library and catalogue are the most important of the four" [I]. Billings was responsible for this last accomplishment, and the National Library of Medicine which grew out of his early efforts serves as his monument. Least remembered of his important contributions, however, are his views on medical education and research which furnished the key to the revolution in these areas *E. Kennerly Marshall,Jr., professorof medicine, Thejohns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland 21205. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine ¦ Autumn 1977 | 35 which took place in Baltimore in 1 889 with the opening of the Johns Hopkins Hospital and in 1893 with the opening of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine [2-4]. Early Days Billings was born on April 12, 1838 in Cottontownship, Switzerland County, Indiana. He described his early life as "that of an ordinary farmer's boy," but he was soon quite sure that he did not want to be a farmer. Books were what interested the young Billings, and he read everything available to him. He made an arrangement with his father that in return for help to attend college, all ofthe family property should go to his sister and he would expect nothing more. Then obtaining some Greek books, a geometry book, and so forth he equipped himself to pass the entrance examination at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio which he did within a year (1852). Most of his time at Miami was spent reading books in the college library. His tastes were protean and he read everything in English that he could lay his hands on, including philosophy, theology, natural science, history, travels, and fiction. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Miami in 1857, graduating with the second honor in his class—the delivery of the Latin salutatory. Billings obtained testimonials from his professors as an aid in seeking employment as a tutor. The Greek professor described him as "a young man of very superior talents and excessive acquirements," and added, "I have observed, moreover, that he possesses great facility in communicating what he knows." This trait was clearly to be one of Billings's strongest assets in his subsequent career [2, p. 8]. In 1858 Billings entered the Medical College of Ohio in Cincinnati, the tenth medical college founded in this country. He financed this part of his education by residing in the hospital and later taking care of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 35-57
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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