Billings, John Shaw

Billings, John Shaw,

1838–1913, American surgeon and librarian, b. Indiana. In the Civil War he was medical inspector of the Army of the Potomac. After the war he was given charge of the Surgeon General's Library in Washington. The catalog entries greatly increased under his supervision by 1873, and soon after he began work on the great Index Catalogue. Sixteen volumes appeared before his military retirement. In 1879 he initiated the Index Medicus, a monthly guide to current medical literature. Billings designed plans for the construction of Johns Hopkins Hospital. His essays on hospital administration and training remain classics. Under his librarianship (1864–95) the National Library of Medicine became one of the greatest medical library systems in the world. In 1889 he compiled the National Medical Dictionary. As director of the combined Astor, Lenox, and Tilden foundations in New York City, which were to become the New York Public LibraryNew York Public Library,
free library supported by private endowments and gifts and by the city and state of New York. It is the one of largest libraries in the world. The library was created by a 1895 law consolidating older reference libraries established by bequests of John
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, he consolidated the collections, planned and supervised the erection of the central library building, united the various free circulating libraries of the city, secured $5 million from Andrew Carnegie for branch buildings, and in general created the New York Public Library as it now stands. It was at Billings' suggestion that punched card machinery was developed, forming the beginnings of computer technology. He also supervised compilation of U.S. census information in 1880 and 1890.


See his Selected Papers (comp. with a biography by F. B. Rogers, 1965); biographies by F. H. Garrison (1915) and H. M. Lydenberg (1924).

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Billings, John Shaw

(1838–1913) surgeon, librarian; born in Switzerland County, Ind. After taking his M.D. from the Medical College of Ohio in 1860, he served as a medical officer with the Union army (1862–64). He then went to the surgeon general's department in Washington, D.C., where he stayed for 30 years (1864–94). While doing research, he was struck by how inadequate the surgeon general's library was; he enlarged it from 600 books in 1865 to more than 50,000 by 1873, and, with Dr. Robert Fletcher, published a 16-volume Index Catalogue (1880–95) of the library. In 1873 he was appointed medical adviser for Johns Hopkins Hospital (Baltimore), which he helped found. He was also interested in preventive medicine and was an original member of the American Public Health Association (1872). Because of the work he had done with the surgeon general's library, he was invited to New York City to help consolidate the privately established Astor, Lenox and Tilden Libraries that form the nucleus of the New York Public Library, and he spent his final years at this task (1896–1913).
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.