Saluting All Veterans with a Salute to my Father, Thomas Michael Flatley

Occasionally, through Musings, I’ve introduced you to my family — my brothers, who sometimes read my posts; my sisters, with whom I’ve shared many joys; my mom, who proudly watches over my progress in life; and my son, who has been known to broadcast some of my posts to the Twitterverse. But I’ve never introduced you to my father.

My father served in World War II. This week we observe Veterans Day, a federal holiday to honor all military personnel, particularly living veterans, who have served the United States. I’ll talk more about my dad later in this post, but I want to take a moment to remind you of the strong link between NLM and the uniformed services.

NLM’s history dates back to 1836, when a field surgeon in the U.S. Army requested funds to buy medical textbooks. This growing collection officially became the Library of the Surgeon General (Army) and was later renamed the Army Medical Library.

In 1952, then Secretary of Defense Robert A. Lovett signed a directive converting the Army Medical Library into the Armed Forces Medical Library, a joint agency of the three military departments. Shortly after that, Congress transferred the Library to the Public Health Service and named it the National Library of Medicine (Public Law 84-941). These events coincided with our move to the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

NLM’s relationship with the uniformed services continues to the present day.

By statute, our Board of Regents includes appointed representatives from the Surgeons General of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Public Health Service. This representation is not merely ceremonial or historical; their perspectives and connections ensure that NLM continues to provide information and services that are useful to uniformed services personnel.

In addition, NLM is proud to count among its workforce many veterans who served or continue to serve our country as a member of our uniformed services. 

Left to right:
Dr. Brennan's grandfather, Michael Flatley, and her father, Thomas Michael Flatley (in uniform) walking down a street.
Left to right:
Dr. Brennan’s grandfather, Michael Flatley, and her father, Thomas Michael Flatley.

But one very special veteran has always guided my judgment and choices—my father, Thomas Michael Flatley. My dad was the seventh son of an Irish immigrant, Michael Flatley. Family lore said that the seventh son of a seventh son is destined to be king of Ireland. Well, Dad, like many Irish men, was married late, at the age of 32, to my wonderful mom, Lois, 10 years his junior. Then the children came along — Jean, Patti (me!), Kathy, Kevin, and Tim (looking promising), then Eileen, Brian, Sean, and Tom (the hope remains), followed by our lovely Bridget, ending the hope of a dynasty!

Dad was proud of his military service. He served in World War II as a transportation engineer making sure that supplies reached the Philippines. He managed logistics and used his military service to reach out to the indigenous population to make sure, to the extent possible, that the ravages of war did not disrupt the social justice commitment of those brave people. Dad realized that the U.S. engagement in the Philippines was not only about military force but also about information that fostered sustainability.

Throughout my childhood and growing up, Dad served in the U.S. Army Reserve. I remember every Thursday night and two weeks every summer when Dad went “to the Army”!

Dad died in 2006 and never got to see me in my role as director of the National Library of Medicine. This is a lot less sad than it sounds, for I carry him in my heart every day and most of my brothers and sisters were with me as I was sworn in as NLM Director. My dad would have liked this phase of my life!

But more importantly, Dad instilled in me a kernel of patriotism that brings deep satisfaction to my role as the director of NLM. We serve the public every day. We make health information accessible, available—whether through ClinicalTrials.gov or through our enormous public access repository of full-text scholarly articles through PubMed Central. NLM brings health information to the people.

In honor of my dad, I am proud to salute our veterans and reaffirm that the National Library of Medicine stands with our uniformed services personnel around the world as we continue on our mission to make sure that the biomedical informatics research and health information resources of NLM are available to everyone, everywhere!

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

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