Today's Center for the History of Medicine is rooted in the history of two library collections: the Boston Medical Library and the Harvard Medical Library. These two collections were brought together in the same building in 1958 as the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.
The Boston Medical Library
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 1826.
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.
The Harvard Medical Library
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 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 world. The name "Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine" signifies the alliance between the Boston Medical Library and the Harvard Medical Library.
The Center for the History of Medicine
Originally known as the Rare Books and Special Collections Department, the Center for the History of Medicine is internationally renowned. From the Boston Medical Library 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, archivists 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.
The logo of the Countway’s Center for the History of Medicine is a stylized representation of the shell of a nautilus, making reference to Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894), whose poem, “The Chambered Nautilus,” first printed in 1858, was one of his most famous literary works. One of his nautilus shells is on display in Holmes Hall, the reading room of the Center.
Renowned in his day as a physician, professor of anatomy, poet, and essayist, Holmes was a founder and first president of the Boston Medical Library and a distinguished member of the faculty and dean of Harvard Medical School. Oliver Wendell Holmes was also a generous benefactor and supporter of the Boston Medical Library, Harvard Medical Library, and the Warren Anatomical Museum. Deep in the medical humanities long before the term was coined, Holmes is emblematic of the work and collections of the Center for the History of Medicine.