NLM Director Lindberg Retires
By Shana Potash
NLM director Dr. Donald A.B. Lindberg has the last word at the Mar. 30 celebration.
Photo: Bill Branson
National Library of Medicine director Dr. Donald A.B. Lindberg retired in March, after 31 years leading the world’s largest medical library. He was one of the longest-serving leaders at NIH.
The NIH and NLM communities gathered in the Natcher Center for a tribute to Lindberg on Mar. 30, just before his last day on the job. The program began with video highlights of his swearing-in ceremony speech, perhaps even more remarkable today than it was in 1984.
Lindberg predicted a time when “the book or journal on the shelf will become increasingly too remote for immediate patient-care decisions,” and computers will become increasingly useful; when “medical informatics will emerge as a formal research field and academic discipline”; and when progress in “cancer research and molecular biology will be to the average citizen not an idle curiosity or newspaper headline, but a matter of immediate personal concern.”
“I hope you saw how true and prescient his observations were,” noted NIH director Dr. Francis Collins. “Don created programs that transformed our approach to information.”
“Your influence has been profound,” NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci told Lindberg. “The kind of capabilities you put at our fingertips made what we do possible.” Drs. Vivian Pinn, Harold Varmus, John Gallin and Roger Glass were the other NIH leaders who spoke of their collaborations with Lindberg.
Lindberg came to NLM from the University of Missouri. Trained as a pathologist, he went on to become a pioneer in the use of computers and medicine and founding president of the American Medical Informatics Association.
During his years at NLM, the public, health providers and scientists gained new or improved access to medical literature via PubMed and PubMed Central; to clinical trials and their results via ClinicalTrials.gov; and to consumer health information via MedlinePlus. And, his crowning achievement was establishment of the National Center for Biotechnology Information to provide access to biomedical and genomic information.
NLM and NIH supporter Congressman Claude Pepper (l), who sponsored legislation to establish NCBI, talks with Lindberg and Dr. David Lipman (c) at a Capitol Hill event in 1988.
NCBI began with a conversation between Lindberg and Florida Congressman Claude Pepper. Peter Reinecke, who worked for Pepper, recalled the day Lindberg came to Capitol Hill to convince Pepper to sponsor NCBI legislation. “Dr. Lindberg immediately captivated Congressman Pepper with his explanation of why the center was so important, why it needed to be at the National Library of Medicine and the impact it could have,” Reinecke said. “Congressman Pepper immediately got it.”
NCBI director Dr. David Lipman said Lindberg “was willing to take risks because he really understood the benefits. I feel lucky to have reported to Don for over 25 years.”
Martha Fishel, chief of the library’s Public Services Division, called Lindberg a “creative thinker” who had the courage to stand up and fight for his ideas and the ideas of others so they had the best chance of getting done.
NLM Deputy Director Betsy L. Humphreys, who is serving as acting director, said she’s “had the great pleasure and privilege of working for, and being mentored by, Don Lindberg.” She praised him for recognizing the need for deep engagement with people outside NLM who rely on the library’s services. Librarians, informatics researchers and health care providers came from across the country for the tribute.
Lindberg had the last word. “It’s been a great pleasure for me personally, and a benefit to me professionally, to have come to NLM at the time I came,” he said, noting that he knew more about the library than about NIH when he arrived. “It was therefore a wonderful pleasure to discover there’s strength and depth all over the NIH.”