John Shaw Billings

John Shaw Billings

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 Library, 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).

John Shaw Billings (April 12 1838March 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 creator 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 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 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)


* *

  • (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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