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.

Shadow Journals: The Story of Medical Advertising (Part 3 of 3)

Today we have the third and final part of a guest post written by David Herzberg, Ph.D., who will present “The Other Drug War: Prescription Drug Abuse and Race in 20th-Century America” on Tuesday, October 22. Read part one here and part two here.

We don’t have a definitive history of medical advertising (dissertators, take note!). In fact, the world of medicine barely appears in the standard histories of advertising beyond 19th-century patent medicines. We know all about the key campaigns that transformed the wider advertising industry: Uneeda Biscuit and Oleo margarine in the Progressive Era, Wonder Bread and Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, the Volkswagon Beetle in the 1960s, and so forth. The annals of medical advertising begin promisingly with a chapter on patent medicines but then basically peter out.

"The obvious anxieties that preoccupy many middle-aged minds often obscure a coexisting depression." From JAMA, volume 209, number 1 (September 22, 1969). Click to enlarge

“The obvious anxieties that preoccupy many middle-aged minds often obscure a coexisting depression.” From JAMA, volume 209, number 1 (September 22, 1969). Click to enlarge.

Obviously any such history would need to be based, in part, on the records of a medical advertising company or the in-house marketing arm of a pharmaceutical company. But they also require access to the advertisements themselves, in the context in which they appeared—i.e., among other places, in medical journals.

It’s not just historians of medical marketing who need the advertisements. Anyone interested in the history of medicine, or of medicine’s relationship to society at large, should care about them. The ads and the articles talked to each other, either through their joint acceptance of larger cultural beliefs or through vigorous debate when professional and profit-seeking agendas clashed. Advertisements also provide a bridge to connect such medical histories to broader developments, via the same links that contemporaries deplored. “They sell medicine like soap!” raged witnesses before Congress in the 1950s, believing that this was argument enough to win the day. This same observation, less polemically framed, might tell us as much about soap and the consumer culture as it does about medicine.

"In many cases the result of 'empty-nest snydrome.' From JAMA, volume 232, number 2 (April 14, 1975). Click to enlarge.

“In many cases the result of ’empty-nest syndrome.'” From JAMA, volume 232, number 2 (April 14, 1975). Click to enlarge.

This is why it was a historic mistake to cut out the ads. And it’s a mistake that we may still be making: today’s online databases offer a la carte articles without the surrounding advertisements, nearby articles, particular layouts, cartoons, etc. (Medical journals used to have cartoon pages; editorial policy apparently insisted that these mostly be nasty pokes at women patients. These pages, too, were often sliced out by well-meaning librarians.)

As I noted before, the New York Academy of Medicine was the only library I have found that did not cut out the advertisements. And even there policy changed for a while in the 1970s. I still don’t know why they had the prescience to spare the advertisements, but we are lucky that they did. It makes for a precious collection that is unlikely to be made obsolete in the digital era.

Shadow Journals: The Story of Medical Advertising (Part 2 of 3)

Today we have part two of a guest post written by David Herzberg, Ph.D., who will present “The Other Drug War: Prescription Drug Abuse and Race in 20th-Century America” on Tuesday, October 22. Read part one here and part three here.

This story of medical journal advertising is typically cast as what historians call a “declension narrative,” a tale whose main arc tracks a decline from the honorable virtues of past generations to the immoral venality of today. In this telling, commerce and marketing slowly colonized the therapeutic endeavor, transforming from the noble pursuit of health into an untrustworthy, buyer-beware precinct of the larger consumer culture.

But this story can also be told very differently.

After all, there had always been advertisements in the medical journals, and subscribers had always been able to see them—they had no librarians to slice-and-dice for them. Subscribers read the articles in the context of having also seen the ads.

From JAMA, volume 207, number 11 (March 17, 1969)

“For the ‘Cheater Eater.'” From JAMA, volume 207, number 11 (March 17, 1969). Click to enlarge.

What might they have drawn from the experience of flipping through the unexpurgated journals? Well, historians have had a field day analyzing the messages of particular ads or particular articles. But the overall structure of the journals also sent its own message. When subscribers flipped past the bundle of advertisements before the table of contents to the ad-free material within, they saw to their satisfaction that commerce had been carefully contained where its self-interested values would not contaminate the real work of medicine—the empirical pursuit of truth, the professional sharing of new ways to alleviate illness and suffering, etc.

And yet, as historians have repeatedly demonstrated, commerce, especially the pharmaceutical kind, had long been a powerful force in medicine. From Parke-Davis’ hyping of cocaine in the 1880s, to Smith Kline French’s careful orchestration of research on amphetamine in the 1930s and 1940s, to Carter Product’s “launching” of minor tranquilizer Miltown with a public relations campaign worthy of a Hollywood starlet, drug companies and their marketing departments are ubiquitous in the history of medicine if you look for them. Their influence was only heightened, ironically, by their loud protestations that their marketing campaigns had no influence on physicians’ therapeutic decisions—doctors, they said, were obviously far too smart and well educated to be swayed by Madison Avenue gimmickry. Few physicians were inclined to argue with such logic, and so the marketing hoopla remained paradoxically below the radar, relatively free of scrutiny or regulatory oversight.

From JAMA, volume 207, number 10 (March 10, 1969). Click to enlarge.

“A sleeping pill for night squawks.” From JAMA, volume 207, number 10 (March 10, 1969). Click to enlarge.

From this perspective, we might all have breathed a sigh of relief when the 1950s rolled around and medical journals finally came clean, giving advertisements the pride of place they had long ago earned and beginning the process by which Americans would come to recognize, and grapple with, the centrality of commerce in their medical system. It is no accident that formal regulatory control of medical advertisements was finally given to the FDA less than a decade later.

Shadow Journals: The Story of Medical Advertising (Part 1 of 3)

Today we have part one of a guest post written by David Herzberg, Ph.D., who will present “The Other Drug War: Prescription Drug Abuse and Race in 20th-Century America” on Tuesday, October 22. Read part two here and and part three here.

It’s a historian’s nightmare: librarians spent the better part of a century diligently cutting out and throwing away some of the most important parts of the journals they received each week before binding and shelving them. Precious historic material—capstone work by some of the nation’s brightest and most creative minds—was destroyed by the very people devoted to preserving it, and destroyed only more thoroughly because of those peoples’ good intentions and zealous work ethic. Why would they have done such a terrible thing?

This is no hilariously nerdy horror movie. It really did happen all across America for most of the 20th century. As far as I can tell, the New York Academy of Medicine stood almost alone in deciding—who knows why—not to rip out the advertisements in their medical journals. We owe them sincere thanks for this.

From JAMA, volume 204, number 4 (April 22, 1968)

“‘Deprol helps brighten the depressed patient’s world.” From JAMA, volume 204, number 4 (April 22, 1968). Click to enlarge.

It’s pretty clear why most librarians cut out the ads, and it wasn’t just to preserve space on their shelves. Back in the day, the medical profession prided itself on being insulated from crass commercialism, and major journals like the Journal of the American Medical Association not only insisted on approving each advertisement, it also lumped together all the ads in an easily removable bunch before and after the main body of the journal. Ads were thus clearly identifiable as separate and unrelated to the pristine knowledge housed in the journal’s interior. Why would a good medical librarian save them?

We all know what happened next. Sometime during the consumer culture revolution of the 1950s, when commerce stopped being crass and instead became a beacon of liberty in the fight against communism and a practical organizing principle of most American institutions, consultants advised the American Medical Association to embrace journal advertising. Ads began to proliferate, and they became bigger, more colorful, and ever more dependent on emotionally charged images to convey the kinds of before-and-after miracles of Madison Avenue. Then, one day, they broke out of their quarantine and began to appear in between articles throughout the journal. Advertising became so ubiquitous, and so important, that a separate “Index of Advertisers” was provided in the back of JAMA to help readers locate the ads just like the table of context helped them locate the articles. In a sense, the ads became a shadow journal alongside the articles, providing more digestible (and typically more optimistic) reports from the cutting edge of medicine.


Triavil: Tranquilizer-antidepressant for the anxiety/depression complex.” From JAMA volume 194, number 8 (November 22, 1965). Click to enlarge.

It was only a matter of time until ads became so thoroughly enmeshed that it was no longer possible to cut them out without also removing parts of articles. Librarians continued to try, however: as late as the 1970s and 1980s, they diligently sized up each page and sliced out whatever advertising they could. Those decades are especially frustrating for historians, if you ask me. We can see the appetite-whetting first and last page of, say, an eight-page mega-advertisement on Valium and “the modern man,” but the meat of the sandwich was long ago pilfered.