Taubman Health Sciences Library History–Our Beginnings

Leading up to the re-opening of the renovated Taubman Health Sciences Library building in summer 2015, we are planning a series of blog posts highlighting aspects of the library’s history. This first post focuses on the first 50 years of the library, from its mid-nineteenth century beginnings to the turn of the 20th century.


University of Michigan Old Medical Building
University of Michigan Old Medical Building. Built in 1850 and pictured during the 1860s. Image source: Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, BL000001.

 Medical School

The history of the Taubman Health Sciences Library begins with the establishment of the medical school and the early years of the University Library. The Medical Department opened in 1850, in a 3-story building on a dirt road at the edge of campus, now the east side of the Diag. The school offered a 2-year program, with five salaried professors hired to lecture and give clinical demonstrations.

In 1850, about 75 students were enrolled in the university as a whole. Medical students likely did not have a college education, but did have to provide evidence of a good moral character and enough Greek and Latin knowledge to read medical texts, as well as arrange a 3-year apprenticeship with a practicing and “respectable” doctor, according to Horace Davenport’s history of the medical school’s first 50 years.

Painting of the U of M campus in 1855 by Jasper Francis Cropsey
A painting by Jasper Francis Cropsey of the University of Michigan campus in 1855, the year the medical collection began. Image source: Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, BL000818.

Starting the Collection

In 1850, the University Library was located in a single room of a private home in Ann Arbor. The first record of expenditures for the medical collection was a special appropriation of $66 in 1854. Accession records were not kept until 1860, so there is no record of what was purchased with the original $66, but early collection efforts focused on journals reporting current medical research, which would remain a guiding principle of the collection for the rest of the century.

The Library began receiving medical journals by 1855, and by 1860 received 24 publications in English, French, and German, including the American Journal of the Medical Sciences, Edinburgh Medical Journal, Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (later the New England Journal of Medicine), and American Journal of Insanity. In 1862, the library received an $100 appropriation for binding periodicals, although financial constraints during the Civil War left gaps in the collections that were not filled until several years later.

Part of the University Library

The medical library began as part of the University Library system and remains so today, although it became a distinct department in 1919. In 1864, University President Erastus O. Haven explained the rationale for a centralized library:

“[T]he higher student of Medicine, for instance, about to graduate, and wishing to consult the best authorities on the subject which he has chosen for his thesis, need not confine himself to medical writers, but leaving that part of the library devoted to them may consult authors in history, metaphysics, or any other field of thought that can throw light on his theme.”

In 1871 a subject catalog for the medical journals was created  at the request of medical school faculty, allowing them to search the collection more easily. The library by this time subscribed to fewer than 30 of the important journals of the day and owned approximately 1500 medical books.


This building on North University Ave. was home to the School of Dentistry and the Homeopathic Medical College 1875 - 1877.
This building on North University Ave. was home to the School of Dentistry and the Homeopathic Medical College 1875 – 1877. Image source: Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, BL001734.

Expanding Collections

In the late nineteenth century the medical collection grew significantly, and the University opened several new schools in the health sciences.

By 1887 the medical collection was receiving more regular and generous funding from the Board of Regents, and collection efforts focused on completing sets of periodicals to the beginnings of their publications and filling in gaps in the collection, such as publications reporting the work of other laboratories and periodicals in expanding subject areas. These acquisitions reduced the necessity of borrowing from other libraries, in particular the Library of the Surgeon General’s Office in Washington.

University Librarian Raymond C. Davis wrote: “Appropriations for the purchase of medical books should be as generous as possible until the necessity of borrowing shall not longer exist.” and by 1896 he reported that “the [M]edical Library is responding in more satisfactory manner every year to the demands made upon it” and by 1898 “when the amount that has been expended for this library is taken into consideration, the extent and quality of the collection, and especially the quality, is very gratifying.”

Several new schools opened at the University to train health professionals during these decades, including the College of Dental Surgery and the College of Homeopathic Medicine  in 1875, and the Training School for Nurses in 1891. Library materials on these topics grew quickly, with the dental collection (258 volumes at the time) separated into a distinct unit in 1885, and the homeopathic collection (450 volumes and a large assortment of pamphlets) in 1897.


U of M medical students studying in 1893.
University of Michigan medical students studying in 1893. Image source: Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, BL002037.

Turn of the Century

By the turn of the 20th century, the medical collection begun in 1855 as a collection of two dozen journals had grown to 10,420 volumes, 154 periodicals, and 806 unbound pamphlets (printed booklets not published as periodicals) . Still primarily a working library of recent medical research, attention would turn in the early twentieth century to acquiring materials considered secondary in importance, such as monographs, reference works, textbooks, and historical works.

A 1901 history of the medical school read: “The value of such a library (i.e. the medical library) will be readily appreciated by anyone engaged in the pursuit of the science of medicine, for a good library is as essential to the research student as are laboratories or other facilities for the prosecution of such work.” By the turn of the century, the library was not only an essential component of medical education at the University of Michigan, but one of the most significant medical collections in the country.


Bentley Historical Library. University of Michigan. Web. 25 Aug. 2014.

Dock, George. The Medical Library of the University of Michigan. Brooklyn, 1905.

Davenport, Horace Willard. Not Just Any Medical School: the Science, Practice, And Teaching of Medicine At the University of Michigan, 1850-1941. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.

Hale, Allison. The Medical Library of the University of Michigan. 1955.

The University of Michigan, an Encyclopedic Survey … Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan, 1941-1958, 1941.

Warthin, Aldred Scott, and George Dock. The Medical Library of the University of Michigan. [Ann Arbor?], 1916.

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