Today's Center for the History of Medicine is rooted in the history of the Harvard Medical Library.

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 we added to the library's holdings.

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 HML-BML partnership co-locating their collections ended on December 31, 2021.

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, and the scholarly community around the world.

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. Holdings include the archives of the Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Dental Medicine, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, as well as an incomparable collection of research records and professional papers of Harvard’s medical, dental, and public health faculty. Combined with its extensive rare books, physician and organizational manuscripts, and object and artifact collections – including the Warren Anatomical Museum, one of the last surviving anatomy and pathology museum collections in the United States – the Center for the History of Medicine’s holdings reflect nearly every medical and public health discipline, including anatomy, anesthesiology, dentistry, internal medicine (and medical specialties), medical jurisprudence, neurology, obstetrics and gynecology, pharmacy and pharmacology, psychiatry and psychology, and surgery, as well as a wide array of public health subjects, including industrial hygiene, nutrition, and tropical medicine, and medical activism ranging throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Information about the Boston Medical Library's special collections and archives, which are no longer managed by the Center, may be found on BML's website.

Since 1965, Harvard faculty and professional archivists, librarians, and 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, thousands of researchers seek out the Center's resources in pursuit of a broad variety of inquiries. Thousands more view the Warren Anatomical 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 and public health to inform healthcare, the health sciences, and the societies in which they are embedded.