Inside the Secret Mission to Safeguard Prized Medical Texts

On August 25, 1942, the first in a convoy of trucks set off under the cover of darkness on a clandestine, 350-mile journey from the outskirts of Washington, DC to Cleveland, Ohio. Their wartime cargo: Not military secrets or advanced weaponry, but some of the nation’s — and the world’s — most prized medical and scientific texts.

Mass evacuations were common during Hitler’s march through Europe, as refugees attempted to flee to the United States or from the cities to the countryside. America, separated by an ocean, was a less likely target, but it wasn’t immune to an attack.

Recognizing this risk, the US Army Medical Library (the forerunner to today’s National Library of Medicine) devised a plan to transfer a sizable chunk of its collection to Cleveland in a cloak-and-dagger maneuver that librarians were more likely to read about than to experience. The move took place under the watch of a team of Pinkerton security guards.

The collection of rarities — 75 tons of printed materials, including Dr William Harvey’s tome on blood circulation and an original 1543 printing of Vesalius’ seminal work on human anatomy — remained in Cleveland for 20 years, when a new library was built in Bethesda, Maryland.

“When the collections were moved, everything was kept secret,” said Kenneth M. Koyle, deputy chief of the National Library of Medicine’s History of Medicine division. “Nobody knew what was happening.”

Fear of Cultural Destruction

By 1940, “it had become pretty well known that the Nazis were confiscating historical artifacts and works of art,” Koyle explained. US officials weren’t overly concerned about an invasion, although they were aware of attempted incursions. 

“The risk in DC was that German U-boats could make their way up the Chesapeake [Bay] and essentially launch rocket attacks,” he said. “Whether intentionally or not, they could destroy cultural artifacts.”

Air raid sirens and drills were common at that time.

Archibald MacLeish, the poet and writer who was serving as the Librarian of Congress at the time, sent a letter to 14 institutions urging them to find a safe haven for their collections. Koyle said the Smithsonian Institution sent many prized collections to Virginia, the National Gallery shipped art to North Carolina, and the original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were locked away at Fort Knox in Kentucky.

As it happens, the Army Medical Library’s home at the time on the National Mall, known as the “Old Red Brick” building, “had long outlived its usefulness,” Koyle said. “The walls were crumbling. It was poorly lighted. Librarians wore miners’ helmets. Around the Mall, it was the last to get indoor plumbing. There was no climate control — just windows that could be opened.” By the time Congress finally authorized funding for a new building, the war had broken out.

Col. Harold Jones, then director of the medical library, knew that the Dudley P. Allen Library in Cleveland, which housed the collection of the Cleveland Medical Library Association (CLMA), was a prime candidate. Built in 1926, the building had space, state-of-the-art climate control — essentially, effective fans — and a good reputation. “They were players,” Koyle said.

But the plans suffered a hitch. A gift that provided funds for the building stated that it was to serve as both a medical museum and a library. Howard Dittrick, MD, the curator, was creating a large exhibit space in the building. He, too, wanted to protect the space from possible enemy air raids, but soon realized that the Army Medical Library posed a larger threat to his museum than the Nazis.

“He just didn’t want to be told that ‘Your collection really doesn’t matter — move it out of the big room into the little room because we need the big room,’ ” said Jennifer Nieves, archivist at the Dittrick Medical History Center, which is now a part of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “The board of the CMLA were kind of waffling over whether that space was ever going to be a museum again.”

“It was a valid complaint,” Koyle said, but “patriotism prevailed.” The CMLA also voted to name the museum after Dittrick, who died before he ever got the space back.

The government’s collection — 35,000 volumes in 952 boxes and carrying a $6 million insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London — made the journey in several convoys.

Although the move itself was clandestine, the museum announced the successful mission with fanfare and the collection was immediately available to researchers.

“It worked out really well for the Allen Library,” Koyle said. “It meant that historians and medievalists would be going to the Allen Library to look at those things.”

The Army sent its own staff to manage and preserve the collection, including rebinding many books in leather treated with oil that seeped into the papers.

The collection stayed in Cleveland until the new library headquarters opened in Maryland in 1962. “It was a more festive occasion in ’62, whereas it was a very clandestine operation in ’42,” Koyle said.

Now the current NLM is bursting at the seams, and despite some renovations a new home will be needed in the near future, Koyle said. But “we do have indoor plumbing,” he added. “We enjoy it very much.”

John Dillon is a journalist in Boston

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