Remembering Donald A. B. Lindberg, a visionary giant with a personal touch

Dr. Donald Lindberg standing in front of the National Library of Medicine.

Along with the 1,700 women and men of the National Library of Medicine (NLM), I am saddened at the death of Donald A. B. Lindberg, M.D. (September 21, 1933-August 17, 2019), director of the NLM for more than 30 years.  

A world-renowned leader in applying computers to health care and a giant in the field of biomedical research, he was hailed for his visionary and transformative leadership. When people talk about people with such great influence, they often say that those who come after them stand on their shoulders. With Don, it was different. He made sure that we stood beside him.  

Like many of you, I believe I had a relationship with Don that had nothing to do with me as a person, but everything to do with the personhood of “DABL.” Don had a way of making each of us feel chosen to be in his orbit and making you feel as if he singled you out as a winner—and he thought we all were winners!

Throughout the years, Don reinforced the feeling that I stood beside a giant, not on his shoulders.

Let me share a few memories that illustrate this point.

In the mid-1990s, Don recognized the importance of the patient as part of the health information ecosystem. He realized that changing the health care system couldn’t only be the job of health professionals, but that patient engagement was key and that it involved many disciplines, so he created committees to guide NLM’s long range planning efforts. He made sure that young people like me, who had strong research programs to address patient engagement, were part of the process.

In 2002, as I launched my sabbatical at NLM, Don and his wife, Mary, invited me and my son, Conor, to their home. I can still picture Don and my then-nine-year-old son splashing in their pool. The Lindbergs took the time to share their home with me, a kindness that my son and I will never forget.

When I became NLM director in August 2016, Don and Mary hosted a lovely party for me. They introduced me to so many people important to the Library with whom I wouldn’t have met so early in my tenure. Their warm welcome made me feel anointed as a person of importance to them and as a part of the next generation of NLM.

And as I prepared to attend my first Friends of the National Library of Medicine gala later that year, I told Don that I was looking forward to seeing him. His response was that he wouldn’t be attending; He said, “This is your time to shine. I will come back next year.” And so, he did—to the gala and to lectures, celebrations, and many professional events. He and his wife remained a strong presence in the life of the Library. Mary was not only Don’s wife, she was a hospice volunteer and a strong advocate in her own right.

Don left his legacy in so many ways, including the annual Donald A.B. Lindberg and Donald West King Lecture to be held September 11 at NLM. Edward Feigenbaum, a pioneer in the development of expert systems in artificial intelligence (AI) and in demonstrating its technological significance, will be speaking. I’d like to think Don would be pleased.  

As I sit in the same office where Don worked, I pledge to take forward the integrity and commitment that Don demonstrated in leading this great institution. It’s not only what he would want, it’s what he would expect.

Dr. Donald Lindberg with grandson, Martin, in his NLM office.
Dr. Donald Lindberg with grandson, Martin, in his NLM office, ca. 1999.

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

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