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John Shaw Billings


Prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War, Billings (1838-1913) worked as a member of the Anatomy Faculty at the Medical College of Ohio from 1860-1861.   He then joined the U.S. Army in in-hospital service as a surgeon and medical statistician from 1862 to 1864.  Billings then took charge of the surgeon-general’s office 1865-1883.  Other prominent postings included Curator of the Medical Museum and Library (1884-1895); University of Pennsylvania, Hygiene Faculty (1891); Director, University Hospital (1893-1896); Director, New York Public Library (1896-1913); Chairman, Board of Directors at the Carnegie Institution (19005-1913).

While he was researching for his thesis in medical school, Billings realized the need for a great medical library, and the need for a comprehensive catalog and index of books, periodicals, journals, etc.  He increased the size of the surgeon-general’s library from 600 volumes in 1865 to 50,000 in 1873.  In 1873, Billings drafted plans for organization and construction of Johns Hopkins University Hospital and recommended the pavilion plan for the construction of the hospital.  This type of plan was soon used across the country. Billings wrote many reports dealing with hospital administration and the training of hospital personnel.  He served as a medical advisor to the Hopkins estate trustees, in which he played an important role in determining the organization, philosophy, and faculty of the Johns Hopkins Medical School.

In 1880 he co-established Index Medicus with Robert Fletcher, a monthly guide to current medical literature.  The guide ran for 16 volumes until Billings retired from the Medical Museum and Library in 1895.

Billings supervised the compilation of statistics for the U.S. Censuses of 1880 and 1890.  He influence Hollerith in the development of the punch-card system using mechanical methods of calculation of vital statistics, which were successfully used in the census-taking of 1890.  This system was used during the construction of the New York Public Library, which he directed from 1896 to 1913.  While the library was being built, Billings headed the reclassification and re-cataloging of the books from the Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations, which were consolidated in 1895 to form the New York Public Library.  He persuaded Carnegie to give $5 million to help fund the establishment of this library and its branches.

Offices held:

National Board of Health: vice-chairman (1878)

American Public Health Association: president (1879)

John Shaw Billings Papers:

National Library of Medicine, History of Medicine Division, Bethesda, MD (28 boxes, includes professional and personal correspondence, 1895)

University of South Carolina, South Caroliniana Library, Columbia, SC (545 items, includes narrative compilation of documents by John Shaw Billings, and genealogical material (1737-1961); unpublished finding aid in the repository)

New York Public Library (44 feet, correspondence and papers relating to Billings’ work with the US Army Medical Department, Johns Hopkins Hospital, National Board of Health, 10th and 11 Census, New York Public Library, Committee of 50 on the Liquor Problem, Carnegie Institution; family correspondence, lectures, and miscellaneous papers)

Additional papers can be found at the Library of Congress, the University of Pennsylvania Library, Johns Hopkins University Library, and the University Rochester Library; Billings is listed as a correspondent in the following entries in NUCMC: MS60-2743, MS61-2320, MS66-1482, MS68-1698, MS69-1373, MS72-1037, MS73-41, and MS82-1331.