The Medical Library Association of Great Britain and Ireland


D. S. Crawford FCLIP, 135 George Street South, Suite 304, Toronto, ON, Canada M5A 4E8. E-mail:

It is well known that William Osler, the famous Canadian physician,1,2 was one of the founders of the Medical Library Association (MLA) in North America, but it is less well known that he was also a founder, and first President, of the Medical Library Association of Great Britain and Ireland (MLA-GBI).

There is no definitive evidence, but it is thought that the origins of the MLA lie in a meeting in 1897 between Osler and Margaret Ridley Charlton, then the Assistant Medical Librarian at McGill University in Montreal. Osler had received his medical qualification at McGill, in 1872, and had taught there until 1884. He was certainly in Montreal in 1897 to attend the joint meeting of the Canadian and British medical associations and it was most likely that he met Miss Charlton at this time. She had come to McGill in 1895 and been appointed Assistant Medical Librarian in 1896—as was then common, the Medical Librarian was a faculty member. Osler had been on the Faculty of Medicine's Library Committee while he was at McGill and his interest in libraries was already apparent.3−6

Although Osler was not present at the organizational meeting of the Association of Medical Librarians, as the MLA was known until 1907, he had encouraged the organizers and according to Francis sent both Miss Charlton from McGill and Miss Noyes, Librarian at the Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of Maryland, as his representatives—he was by this time at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The organizational meeting was held on 2 May 1898 and eight people—four physicians and four librarians—were present. The main organizers were Miss Charlton and Dr George Gould, editor of the Philadelphia Medical Journal, who had also attended the Montreal meeting. Miss Charlton served as the new Association's Secretary from 1898 to 1903 and again from 1909 to 1911. Dr Gould was the President from 1898 to 1901 and Osler succeeded him from 1901 to 1904.

In 1905 Osler moved to Oxford to become Regius Professor of Medicine and at about this time there were discussions concerning the formation of a similar group in the United Kingdom. According to Bishop,7 Cuthbert Clayton, Librarian of the Manchester Medical Society and Dr Walker Hall of Bristol University were the prime movers behind the MLA-GBI. As with the MLA, Osler was supportive and Bishop quotes a letter, dated 1950, from Hall that states, ‘I approached Osler and he lent his support to the project’.

According to an unsigned article in the British Medical Journal8‘The idea of forming an association was conceived at the Annual Meeting (of the British Medical Association) in Sheffield in July 1908’, and Bishop reprints a circular letter that was sent to potential members of ‘An Association of British Medical Librarians’ in October, by C. King Rudge, the Honorary Librarian of the Bristol Medical Library. It is of interest to note that Rudge was the only British member of the (North American) Association of Medical Librarians in its early years. An informal organizing meeting was held at Leeds on 9 January 1909 and a provisional committee was appointed to draw up a constitution and rules and to organize the first official meeting. This meeting was announced in the Lancet9 in May 1909 and the MLA-GBI formally came into existence in Belfast, at the meeting of the British Medical Association, on 28 July 1909. William Osler, who had been appointed the Interim President in January, was formally elected the first President. Clayton and Hall were appointed the Joint Secretaries.

The Proceedings of the first meeting were published, in Manchester, in 1909;10 this thin volume contains the new Association's constitution, a list of the 31 members (4 honorary, 21 ordinary and 6 libraries) and a report of the first annual meeting. At this meeting the minutes of the preliminary meeting were read and the constitution, which had been drawn up by the Provisional Committee, was approved. The report notes that ‘in conjunction with the annual meeting an exhibition of medical MSS, books and photographs of libraries, etc., was held … from July 27th to 30th’ but the only paper that seems to have been read was the Presidential Address by Dr William Osler. This Presidential Address, entitled ‘The Medical Library in Post-Graduate work’, was published first in the British Medical Journal11 and then as part two of the Proceedings, where it is numbered pages 9–19.

Not much then seems to have occurred until summer 1910 when the Joint Secretaries wrote to the Lancet12 announcing that the second annual meeting of the MLA-GBI would be held in London on 27 and 28 July—again in conjunction with the British Medical Association's meeting. The meeting was held at the Royal College of Surgeons and at the old School of Science in South Kensington; the proceedings were not published separately but were reported in the Lancet on 20 August13 and 3 September.14 One speaker, Victor Plarr, Librarian of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, read a paper on the catalogue of the College, then nearing completion, and began his paper ‘by stating various reasons why it was not easy for the librarian to write on library work. Librarianship was the quintessence of obscure and faithful routine and the good librarian was not conscious of himself or prone to analyse an almost instinctive set of practices.’ The only paper that appears to have been published in full is that by H. M. Barlow, the Assistant Librarian at the Royal College of Physicians.15 Barlow, whose paper was apparently instigated by Osler, compared the North American and the British Associations and put forward some very sensible suggestions of how the MLA-GBI could encourage cooperation among its members. He ended by stating that, as the Association's objectives were both sensible and achievable, ‘the success of the Medical Library Association, we think, is assured. The printed record of the Association then starts to fade away; although in June 1911 the Lancet16 reporting on the (American) MLA meeting, noted, ‘our own Medical Library Association continues to do admirable work under the presidency of Professor Osler’. Interestingly, immediately below this short article the Lancet announced that Osler had just been awarded a Baronetcy in King George V's Coronation honours.

Although the new Association had powerful supporters, there were also doubters, and they included the influential librarian and medical administrator, John MacAlister. He was both Librarian and Secretary of the Royal Society of Medicine—he had been instrumental in its 1907 creation by the merger of 15 medical and surgical societies. He was also very active in the Library Association (LA), of which he had been Secretary from 1887 to 1898 and was to become the President from 1915 to 1919.17 Perhaps to get him on side, he had been made an Honorary Member of the MLA-GBI at its first meeting. MacAlister was also an admirer of Osler's and wrote an amusing contribution entitled ‘The Osler Library’ for Sir William's 70th birthday tribute.18 Despite these facts, he remained sceptical of the MLA-GBI and, according to a letter (reproduced in Bishop) from him to Barlow offering congratulations on his paper at the second annual meeting, he felt that the new Association would have done better to be a branch of the Library Association.

Perhaps because of the coronation of King George V in June or, more likely, because the British Medical Association19 and the medical establishment were consumed by debates on the National Health Insurance Bill that had been introduced in parliament in May, no meeting of the MLA-GBI appears to have been held in 1911 and in July 1912 one of the two Joint Secretaries (Cuthbert Clayton) resigned from his post in Manchester. No contemporary mention of the Association can be found in print after 1911 and the idea of an association of medical librarians was not resurrected in Britain until 1947 when, as described by Bishop, 33 librarians met at the Library Association and formed a Sub-Section of the University and Research Section. In 1948 this became a fully fledged Section and has continued, under a variety of names, for over 50 years.