Dr. Donald Lindberg, a pioneer in the field of medical informatics, will be stepping down in March after serving more than 30 years as director of the National Library of Medicine. His tenure has been marked by moving the library into the electronic information age where its curated clinical knowledge could be pushed via the Internet to clinicians and researchers around the globe.
“When he started at the NLM, there were no electronic journals,” said Dr. Doug Fridsma, president and CEO of the American Medical Informatics Association, a professional association that Lindberg helped found in 1989 and served as its first president.
“At the time, very few people had personal computers,” Fridsma said. “Don took a traditional library and turned it inside out. The information wasn't just coming into the library to be archived, but it was going out to support biomedical research.”
“Internationally, people turn to Medline and PubMed because it's open to the general public to access,” Fridsma said. “This was way before open source and open access.”
The world's largest medical library traces its roots to a military medical library started in 1836. It passed to civilian control and became the NLM in 1956.
Programs created during Lindberg's tenure “changed fundamentally the way biomedical information is collected, shared and analyzed,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, which oversees the NLM. Access to the MEDLINE database via the PubMed search engine, ClinicalTrials.gov, the Visible Human Project, the National Center for Biotechnology Information and the Unified Medical Language Systems, were all introduced on Lindberg's watch.
“Don is not a self-promoter, so sometimes these trailblazing efforts seem to appear magically,” Collins said. “Those of us who know better, however, understand they came about because of Don's tireless energy, scientific acumen, and unwavering focus and determination.”
In 2004, the NLM funded a national license for developers and providers to use the Systematized Nomenclature of Medicine Clinical Terms, or SNOMED CT, clinical coding system from SNOMED International, an arm of the College of American Pathologists.
In 2007, NLM supported the handover of SNOMED to the International Health Terminology Standards Development Organisation, based in Copenhagen, Denmark, making the U.S.-developed code set more broadly available internationally.
Since NLM began its support, thousands of software developers and end users in the U.S. have acquired SNOMED licenses, according to NLM Deputy Director Betsy Humphries. Today, emulating the U.S. model, 26 other nations financially support SNOMED licenses for their citizens and organizations.
“Before Don came, he talked to people across the country about what kind of issues could be addressed by NLM in the field,” things the government could do to help eliminate duplication of effort by multiple providers, researchers and developers, Humphries said.
“He came up with a notion that became a Unified Medical Language System,” Humphries said. “It's basically for use by system developers and medical informatics researchers. It allows them to build a system that acts as if it understands the meaning of medical terms.”
Lindberg is 81 years old.
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