Decoration Day, Pandemics, and the National Library of Medicine

Military cemetery in the background. Illustrations, photos and flowers overplayed in foreground.

This week we celebrate Memorial Day, a federal holiday to honor our veterans and remember the men and women of the U.S. military who gave their lives in the service of our country. Originally known as Decoration Day, this was a day for Americans to commemorate the memory of departed soldiers by adorning their graves with flowers, flags, and banners. For some reason, as a kid I preferred the name “Decoration Day” — maybe because I’ve always thought it’s important to celebrate patriotism. 

In an earlier post, I reflected on one of the most surprising experiences I’ve had as NLM Director, the emergence and recognition of a renewed sense of patriotism that brings a deeper awareness of purpose and satisfaction to my professional role. I trace this sense of allegiance and service to our country back to my youth, with my dad in the U.S. Army Reserve; my Uncles, Bill, Jerry and Ed, who were active duty Navy and Army officers; my cousins Joey and Bill who served in the Army Special Forces and the Navy; and, of course, all the young men friends who served in Vietnam. I was fortunate, though, that when I went to decorate graves on Memorial Day, I did so as a tribute to unknown soldiers, not as a grievous act of remembrance.

Did you know that NLM predates the first celebration of Memorial Day (“Decoration Day” back then) by more than 30 years? And that our roots are firmly grounded in military service?

NLM was established in 1836 when the Army Surgeon General requested funds from the U.S. government for medical books to refer to in the field, and the growing collection officially became the Library of the Office of the Surgeon General, United States Army. In our first 120 years we were, through various structures, a military medical library. It was only in 1956 that an act of Congress transferred the library to the Public Health Service and named it the National Library of Medicine.

One hundred years ago, our country was in the grip of a different pandemic — the 1918 influenza pandemic. Although we may think that this pandemic only spanned the year of 1918, it lasted more than two years, with effects reaching into 1920. My dad was born during the pandemic, and I’m often curious how my grandmother, Mary, coped with being pregnant with her eighth child (out of nine) in Philadelphia in the spring of 1919. We weren’t a military family back then, and I wonder where my grandmother sought help when she had questions about health, pregnancy, and child-rearing. Whomever she turned to, she must have received some good advice because all her children survived, and most lived well into their 80s, including my dad.

Pregnant women, and indeed anyone with health concerns or questions during the current COVID-19 pandemic, have the National Library of Medicine to turn to for trusted health information. We’re working closely with NIH’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to help build a data collection system that can link records of mothers and babies to improve clinical care and maternal and child health outcomes research. We’re supporting the addition of language to the formal terminologies of health care, including LOINC (Logical Observation Identifiers Names and Codes) and SNOMED CT, to make sure that professionals have words to characterize the clinical landscape of COVID-19 in adults and children. And staff from our marvelous History of Medicine Division are actively connecting with researchers to guide them to unique and rare materials in our collections which document national and regional responses to the 1918 influenza pandemic, like this military hospital magazine from U.S. General Hospital No. 18 of Waynesville, North Carolina, which recorded experiences of soldiers, and this publication of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia which recorded the contributions of its volunteers to make sure they were not forgotten by future generations.

NLM stands as a trusted source of health information for the world, during times of crisis and in more normal times. We partner with Institutes across NIH, such as the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to promote up-to-date information and with other government agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to align as one voice across government. We continue to focus on our mission of conducting and supporting research; building, curating, and providing access to molecular biology and genomic, clinical trial, and other types of biomedical data; acquiring, organizing, preserving, and providing free online access to scholarly biomedical literature around the world; and providing access to biomedical and health information across the U.S. through the National Network of Libraries of Medicine

Please tell me how we can best help you. And please accept our good wishes to all of you remembering military family and friends as we once again celebrate Decoration Day during this challenging time.

2 thoughts on “Decoration Day, Pandemics, and the National Library of Medicine

  1. My husband’s father was a student at Drexel in Philadelphia in 1918. He told my husband about seeing the coffins piled high in the streets then. He was of the prime age for dying of the flu but somehow he escaped it.

    1. Hi Melissa,

      Thanks for sharing your family’s story. At NLM, and throughout NIH, we’re working hard to respond to the public health challenges resulting from the current COVID-19 crisis.


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