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Commentary by Dr. Martin M. Cummings on his testimony before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee concerning the National Library of Medicine, for fiscal year 1982

From interviews with Dr. Cheryl Dee, 2010

Excerpts from testimony
Interview and commentary
Further resources

Excerpts of U.S. Senate subcommittee testimony concerning the National Library of Medicine, followed by an interview with Dr. Martin M. Cummings, Director Emeritus, National Library of Medicine, reflecting upon the testimony


February 25, 1981

U.S. SENATE . . . Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations

Senator Eagleton, presiding. Senator Burdick present.


Lister Hill Center

The NLM dedicated the new Lister Hill Center Building in May 1980. It provides sophisticated resources for the Lister Hill National Center for the Biomedical Communications, the National Medical Audiovisual Center (recently moved from Atlanta), as well as for several other NLM and NIH programs. The architectural and engineering plans for the renovation of the present library building have been completed and will improve the protection of the collection and safety of the readers.

The Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications is the research and development arm of the National Library of Medicine. One major objective of the Center is to improve the manner in which books, journals and audiovisual media are stored, retrieved and used. A principal effort of the Center is to develop "knowledge-based systems" which would provide specific, current information useful for patient care and health care delivery.

In addition to our present use of available technology, we are actively working with industry to investigate many new emerging technologies, such as:

  • Telefacsimile -- which would allow copies of articles from journals or other documents to be sent across the country almost instantly;
  • Electronic mail -- enabling scientists to communicate with each other through computer terminals;
  • Video disc technology for improved storage and retrieval of information;
  • Computer-generated printing -- to save money and increase the timeliness of the scientific literature;
  • Education through audiovisual devices -- improving the training of health science students, scientists and practitioners.


Senator Eagleton. It's our understanding about 1,200 of the more than 5,000 health libraries in the country have access to medical literature through online bibliographic data base searches but last year you were forced to place a moratorium on additional users because of limited computer capacity. Will you have to continue this moratorium during the upcoming year?

Dr. Cummings. I am very pleased that you recall that difficult time, Mr. Chairman. Let me briefly tell you how that problem was dealt with because I think that it represents a marvelous example of how NIH works. It became very clear that we could not acquire a new computer system because the costs were estimated between $9 and $15 million. That was beyond our reach, and there were other problems associated with that procurement. I am pleased to tell you that another part of NIH, the Division of Computer Research and Technology, made available to us a computer system that they were replacing, and we were able to acquire that for the unpaid balance, which in that case was about $700,000. We, in turn, then gave our computers to another part of NIH, the Clinical Center, which had a desperate need to have the kind of capacity that we enjoyed. . . . So within the family, we were able to shift our hardware and essentially hardly lost a beat. This was all done over a weekend with assistance from the engineers, and I'm very pleased to report that to you. That problem has been solved and the moratorium has been lifted, and several hundred new institutions, mainly hospitals have joined the network.

Interview with Martin Cummings, MD, Director Emeritus, National Library of Medicine, 1964-84; interviewed by Cheryl Dee, PhD, 2010.

Lister Hill Center Building Dedication

Dr. Dee. Dr. Cummings, this year celebrates the Lister Hill National Center for Biological Communications. Would you trace some of its history for us?

Dr. Cummings. The beginnings of the idea for the Lister Hill Center go back farther than you might think.

My first vision of the concept of research at the National Library of Medicine began as far back as 1963 when I was first approached about my interest in the National Library of Medicine. Dr. Luther Terry, who was then the U.S. Surgeon General, met with me and told me that I had been recommended as a candidate for the position as Director of the National Library of Medicine. I will mention here that he did not happen to tell me that there was a long list of other esteemed candidates. Dr. Terry described to me the needs of the National Library of Medicine and, relevant to our current discussion about the Lister Hill Center, Dr. Terry described the need for the National Library of Medicine to develop a research program in support of the nation's medical library activities. You will remember that in 1963 I was serving as the Chief of extramural grants at NIH so it probably was no coincidence that NLM was approaching me and I thought I would be able to develop a research program at NLM.

When I was hired at the National Library of Medicine I wanted the Library to develop along the lines of the NIH model. At NIH I created an extramural program and had been quite successful in getting the authorization to spend over $100 million to develop various NIH programs, so a center such as the Lister Hill Center remained a vision. We began by looking inside the National Library of Medicine to see if we could improve library processes and library systems by creating an intramural research activity. Of course we did not have a facility for research activity and, in fact, we did not have trained staff to do research and development. We began by opening discussions about research with friends in Congress and the influential members of the National Library of Medicine Board of Regents to see if there was any support for the establishment of a facility that would be the research and development arm of the Library. We received encouragement about the idea of research and development but we were reminded that it would be difficult to obtain funding for the construction of a new facility. They were correct.

We did have enough encouragement to begin a modest research and development program at the National Library of Medicine. One of my biggest successes was to be able to bring Dr. Ruth Davis to the National Library of Medicine from the Defense Department. Dr. Davis was able to develop research programs which were funded by other agencies. An example of this cooperative work with other agencies was Dr. Davis' use of the NASA satellites. Dr. Davis acquired the use of ATS 1, the first experimental satellite in space. Other research programs continued to lay the groundwork for the concept of the Lister Hill Center. Ruth Davis and her deputy, Davis McCarn, wrote the specifications that led to the development of AIM-TWX, the first pilot experiment that moved database searching from batch mode to an on-line computer system. As you know, AIM-TWX developed into MEDLINE. Dr. Davis credited Davis McCarn for his excellent work with AIM-TWX.

Dr. Dee. Dr. Cummings, can you provide us with any memories of the May 22, 1980 dedication ceremony for the Lister Hill Center.

Dr. Cummings. The Lister Hill Center was dedicated on May 22, 1980. Senator Lister Hill was present arriving in a wheelchair. Speeches honoring Senator Hill were given by distinguished Senators and other dignitaries. The speakers honored his contributions to the advancement of health and to the United States. The speeches were inspiring.

I was greatly moved when a military band played the Star-Spangled Banner and Senator Hill almost jumped out of his wheelchair to stand with his hand over his heart.

Other dignitaries made brief remarks supplementing the account of his contributions made by the main speakers. There was representation from the Surgeon General, and the National Institutes of Health and full representation of the National Library of Medicine Board of Regents. The National Library of Medicine has several documents; I think there is even a video of the dedication ceremony. Please see if you can locate a document of the dedication to get more details of this important event.

Dr. Dee. Thank you Dr. Cummings. I will obtain a document about the Lister Hill Center dedication.


Lister Hill Center Building Dedication

We must develop a communications system so that the miraculous triumphs of modern science can be taken from the laboratory and transmitted to all in need. [NLM Annual Report includes a picture of the participants]

Some 200 invited guests participated in a full day of activities, highlighted by an afternoon address by Patricia R. Harris, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). In the morning, visitors viewed a film of the history of the Library and the new Lister Hill Center and then saw firsthand the impressive $23-million facility.

Following a special luncheon, the U.S. Navy Band's Ceremonial Unit played at the dedication ceremony, which Lister Hill himself attended. There he heard tributes paid to his leadership as the Senate's "Statesman for Health." A member of Congress for 47 years, he sponsored many of the most important pieces of health legislation enacted in this century. Among others, he cosponsored the legislation that in 1956 created the National Library of Medicine; in 1962, he gave the keynote address at the dedication of the Library building.

The audience for the dedication was composed of an impressive array of leaders in the health field: medical educators, librarians, information scientists, directors of the Regional Medical Libraries, the NLM Board of Regents, directors of the international MEDLARS centers, officials from the Department of Health and Human Services, and friends from the library and health-science community.

NLM Director Martin M. Cummings, M.D., first welcomed the guests and Lister Hill. The keynote speaker, DHHS Secretary Patricia R. Harris, was introduced by the Assistant Secretary for Health and Surgeon General of the Public Health Service, Julius Richmond, M.D. Secretary Harris spoke of the many changes in American life that have taken place since 1923, when Hill first entered Congress. She called the new building a "dramatic step toward overcoming the communications problems faced in the biomedical sciences" and "a fitting tribute to a man who cared deeply about the health of the American people."

After a brief reception on the outdoor terrace of the new building, guests returned to the auditorium for a program of scientific papers on the theme "Perspectives in Biomedical Communications." Lionel M. Bernstein, M.D., Director of the Lister Hill Center, chaired this event, during which five leaders in communications shared their viewpoints on the field's current status, as well as its future directions, with colleagues. W.N. Hubbard., Jr., M.D., President of the Upjohn Company and former Chairman of the NLM Board of Regents, emphasized the importance of health care delivery, particularly its humanistic value and its relationship to biomedical communications. Sune Bergstrom, M.D., Rector Emeritus of the Karolinska Institute, described the positive impact of modern information transfer in many countries and also reflected on the pressing need for improved information technologies in under developed countries. Robert Wedgeworth, Executive Director of the American Library Association, detailed the important and changing role of libraries in biomedical communications.

Under a picture of Senator Hill the caption reads: Former Senator Hill, for whom the Lister Hill Center is named, signs the guestbook for the dedication. Looking on are the Senator's twin sister, Mrs. C. G. Laslie, and his son, L. Lister Hill, both of Montgomery, Alabama.

Following the Secretary's address, Hill heard tributes from the Honorable Paul C. Rogers, former U.S. Representative from Florida; S. Richardson Hill, Jr., M.D., President of the University of Alabama and Chairman of the NLM Board of Regents; and Lois Ann Colaianni, President of the Medical Library Association.

Two final papers provided perspectives on current and future information technologies with their wide-ranging impact on information transfer. Lewis Branscomb, Ph. D., Vice President and chief scientist, IBM Corporation, discussed "Working Smart: New Roles for Computers," and William O. Baker, Ph. D., Chairman of the Board of Bell Laboratories, spoke on "The View from the Field of Information Science." The Library plans to publish these five papers in 1981.

Further Resources

Institutions and Programs