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John Shaw Billings
1895 Cecilia Beaux portrait of Billings in the National Library of Medicine.
Born April 12, 1838(1838-04-12)
Allensville, Switzerland county, Indiana
Died March 11, 1913 (aged 74)
New York City
Occupation Librarian, surgeon

John Shaw Billings (April 12, 1838 – March 11, 1913) was a librarian and surgeon best known as the modernizer of the Library of the Surgeon General's Office of the Army and as the first director of the New York Public Library.


Born in Allensville, Switzerland County, Indiana, Billings graduated from Miami University in 1857, and from the Medical College of Ohio in 1860. He was medical inspector of the Army of the Potomac during the American Civil War, then became head of the Library of the Surgeon General's Office in Washington, D.C.

The Surgeon General's library that he developed (see Army Medical Museum and Library) later became the core of the National Library of Medicine. During his time as Director of the Library of the SGO, 1865–1895, he was responsible for the creation of both the Index Medicus (1879) and the Index Catalogue of the Surgeon General's Office (1880).

He was also for some years professor of hygiene in the University of Pennsylvania. He is also credited with designing the original buildings of Johns Hopkins Hospital, which opened in 1889. The building with the hospital's trademark dome was subsequently named for Billings.

Dr. Billings received an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland[1] in 1892.

After he left the Surgeon General's Office he united the libraries of New York to form the New York Public Library and it was Billings who inspired Andrew Carnegie to provide funds for the construction of sixty-five branch libraries throughout New York and 2509 libraries in cities and towns across North America and Britain.

Dr. Billings was the senior editor of books reporting the work of the Committee of Fifty to Investigate the Liquor Problem in the early 1900s. The Committee researched the activities and publications of the Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).

He acted as supervisor for the U.S. Census 1880 and 1890. He often collaborated with Herman Hollerith

Billings died in New York City in 1913, aged 74.


Lydenberg (1924, see below) lists 22 publications by Billings, among them:

  • Principles of Ventilation and Heating (1884)
  • Mortality and Vital Statistics of the United States (1885)
  • National Medical Dictionary (Two volumes, 1889)
  • Description of the Johns Hopkins Hospital (1890)
  • Social Statistics of Cities (Six volumes, for the Eleventh Census)
  • Some Library Problems of Tomorrow (1902)
  • Physiological Aspects of the Liquor Problem (1903)

See also[]

  • Fielding H. Garrison


  • Lydenberg, Harry Miller (1924). John Shaw Billings: Creator of the National Medical Library and its Catalogue, First Director of the New York Public Library. American Library Association. 
  • Garrison, Fielding H. (1915). John Shaw Billings: A Memoir. Putnam's. 
  • Hasse, Adelaide R.. Bibliography of the Writings of John Shaw Billings, 1861-1913.  (Garrison's Memoir, p. 411-422)
  • Havighurst, Walter, Men of Old Miami, 1809-1873: A Book of Portraits, New York City: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1974.


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