Janet Doe, NYAM’s First Woman Library Director

By Paul Theerman, Director

Janet Doe (1895–1985) spent 30 years with the New York Academy of Medicine, from the opening of its new building in 1926 until her retirement in 1956. In retirement she continued to shape the profession, as consultant and expert. Her contributions to medical librarianship led to her being honored through the establishment in 1966 of the Medical Library Association’s most prestigious lecture, the Janet Doe Lecture, for “unique perspectives on the history or philosophy of medical librarianship.”1

Janet Doe, circa 1949.

Doe came to library work right after World War I. A 1917 Wellesley graduate in science, she entered a nursing training program at Vassar, followed by clinical training at Presbyterian Hospital, where she attended the rush of influenza patients.2 At the same time she took up work as an untrained aide at the New York Public Library. After a knee injury cut short her fledgling nursing career, she moved full time to the NYPL library school. With formal training in librarianship and a background in medicine, she was recruited in 1923 to the library of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now Rockefeller University). Three years later, she moved to NYAM as head of periodicals; in 1929 she was appointed Assistant Librarian, and upon Archibald Malloch’s retirement in 1949 she became Librarian, as the director’s title was then known. Doe held this position for the next seven years, until her own retirement in 1956. Looking back on her tenure as the first woman to lead the Academy Library, she reported “no special difficulties whatever” because of her gender.3

During her 30-year tenure at the Academy, Doe saw many changes. She began soon after the Academy’s new building opened in 1926, and she was here when the extension to that building was constructed in 1933, with new stacks and offices and its jewel, the Rare Book Room. As head of periodicals and carrying on into her supervisory roles, she oversaw the main work of the Library: meeting the information needs of physicians.4 The Library met these needs chiefly through its extensive medical journal holdings, maintaining subscriptions to some 2,500 titles and welcoming anyone, not just Academy Fellows, to use them.5 All along, the Library continued to add contemporary medical books and reports, building up a “comprehensive research collection . . . its most important contribution.”6 The Library continued to add to the historical collections as well. It purchased the Edward Clark Streeter Collection of rare books in 1928; the Margaret Barclay Wilson collection on food and cookery came by donation in 1929; and the John Greenwood collection, including George Washington’s dentures, came to the Library in 1937.7

In many ways, Doe’s tenure was the last where the Library—indeed, any research library—functioned as essentially a stand-alone institution. Users came to the books; the books—or the information contained therein—did not come to them. Still in the future was the large-scale national and international sharing of information and resources that automation and then the internet made possible. Above all, the country lacked a truly national medical library with coordinating responsibilities for all medical literature. These developments came about after Janet Doe retired. Part of her story is how she helped to them to be realized, through raising the skills of librarians and supporting newer medical libraries, and by helping to establish the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

A great impetus came from the significant expansion of medical libraries that she saw during her career. Some were medical school libraries; many were hospital libraries. Of the latter, Doe reported that “[they] were poor; they had mostly untrained librarians and were only perhaps open half time.”8 As president of MLA in 1949 she shepherded through a certification program for medical librarians as a way of raising the skills and capacities of the profession. While MLA’s continuing education courses helped train a new generation of specialized medical librarians, this was not enough. To supplement those courses in 1942 she developed the Handbook of medical library practice,9 for which she served as editor, as well as co-editor of the 1956 second edition. Doe also supported new medical school libraries. In 1949 she facilitated the donation of 12,000 duplicate medical books and journals to the library of Southwestern Medical College in Dallas, Texas, founded just a few years previously.10

Janet Doe is far right in this photograph of Honorary Consultants to the Army Medical Library, from Betsy L. Humphreys’s Janet Doe Lecture: “Adjusting to progress: interactions between the National Library of Medicine and health sciences librarians, 1961–2001.”

Doe was also instrumental in establishing the Army Medical Library as the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Starting in 1944, she was one of the “surveyors” of the Army Medical Library, leading to The National Medical Library, Report of a Survey of the Army Medical Library.11 This work guided reform at that library and began the campaign to transform it into a national medical library; Doe remained active as a consultant. On April 10, 1956, in her last public appearance before her retirement, Doe testified before Congress on behalf of a bill to establish NLM, and later she worked to secure its grant-making authority.12

Three of Janet Doe’s publications deserve further mention: the Bibliography of the works of Ambroise Paré 13 was her foray into classic bibliography; in a 1953 article, “Opportunities for women in medicine: medical librarianship,”14 she both acknowledged that most medical librarians were women and saw that field as a path for career development; and, in a work done after her retirement to Katonah, New York, a village in northern Westchester County, “The Development of Medical Practice in Bedford Township, New York, Particularly in the Area of Katonah,”15 she provided a survey from colonial times to the present. Doe died in 1985, at the age of 90.


All links current as of March 10, 2021.

1For a précis of Doe’s career and significant publications, please see the Medical Library Association’s “Doe, Janet,” https://www.mlanet.org/blog/doe,-janet, and for a summary of her MLA oral history, “Doe, Janet (AHIP, FMLA),” https://www.mlanet.org/p/bl/et/blogid=52&blogaid=333. The language describing the Janet Doe Lecture is from https://www.mlanet.org/p/cm/ld/fid=26.

2Pat L. Walter, “A small window on Janet Doe’s life,” Bull Med Libr Assoc. 2001 Jan; 89(1): 83. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC31711/.

3“MLA Oral History Committee Interview with Janet Doe,” Medical Library Association Oral History Program, interview by Estelle Brodman, July 20, 1977; approved August 19, 1977; https://catalog.nyam.org/cgi-bin/koha/opac-detail.pl?biblionumber=30365

4“The library exists first and foremost for the physicians, their needs are what it is designed to meet, and towards which its major energies are spent.” Janet Doe, “The Library of the Academy of Medicine,” November 15, 1951, talk and broadcast. On November 15, 1951, Doe spoke to a group of physicians in the Academy lecture series “For Doctors Only.” The talk was eventually broadcast on WNYC, the city’s publicly owned station, and NYPR Archives has digitized it: https://www.wnyc.org/story/the-library-of-the-academy-of-medicine/.

5Journals form the bulk of the Library’s collections, and the Library’s catalog contains bibliographical entries for over 22,000 journal titles. The figure of 2,500 active journal subscriptions comes from Doe’s talk on November 15, 1951. Since 1878, the Academy Library has been open to the public.

6Doe, “The Library of the Academy of Medicine”: “This last function, that of the comprehensive research collection, is for certain, its most important contribution. There are many other working medical libraries in New York City, some 60 or so at least, for every live medical institution of any size must have a library of sorts. But the broadly based reference library possessing the seldom called for, but occasionally indispensable report is a necessity for a research center such as New York has become.”

7For Library history highlights, please see the Library Timeline.

8Here and below the content is from “MLA Oral History Committee Interview with Janet Doe.”

9Janet Doe, ed. Handbook of medical library practice (Chicago: American Library Association, 1942).

10“Medical News,” JAMA 1949 Nov 19; 141(12): 854.

11Keyes D. Metcalf, Janet Doe, Thomas P. Fleming, et al., The National medical library; report of a survey of the Army Medical Library, financed by the Rockefeller Foundation and made under the auspices of the American Library Association (Chicago: American Library Association, 1944).

12“MLA Oral History Committee Interview with Janet Doe”; Kent A. Smith, “Laws, leaders, and legends of the modern National Library of Medicine,” J Med Libr Assoc. 2008 Apr; 96(2): 121–133.

13Janet Doe, Bibliography of the works of Ambroise Paré: premier chirurgien & conseiller du roy (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1937).

14Idem, “Opportunities for women in medicine: medical librarianship,” J Am Med Women’s Assoc. 1953 Dec; 8(12):414-6.

15Idem, “The Development of Medical Practice in Bedford Township, New York, Particularly in the Area of Katonah,” Bull Med Libr Assoc. 1961 Jan; 49(1 Pt 1): 1–23.

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About nyamhistory

The Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health, part of the Academy Library, promotes the scholarly and public understanding of the history of medicine and public health. Established in 2012, the Center aims to build bridges among an interdisciplinary community of scholars, educators, clinicians, curators, and the general public. The Center bases its work on the Library's historical collections, among the largest in this field in the United States and open to the public since 1878.

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