OBITUARY: Joseph Leiter, FMLA, 1915-2005

By Kotzin, Sheldon | Journal of the Medical Library Association, October 2005 | Go to article overview

OBITUARY: Joseph Leiter, FMLA, 1915-2005


Kotzin, Sheldon, Journal of the Medical Library Association


Joseph (Joe) Leiter, FMLA, the first associate director of library operations at the National Library of Medicine (NLM), died in Bethesda, Maryland, on May 27, 2005, at the age of ninety. During his tenure from 1965 to 1983, he contributed immeasurably to a variety of important programs at NLM and in the larger medical library community. These programs are a catalog of successes that contemporary librarians take for granted every day. The development of MEDLINE (teaming up with the late Davis McCarn), DOCLINE, the Regional Medical Libraries, the NLM Associate Program, the introduction of contracts to expand library services, and the advancement of women and minorities in the profession are only part of his legacy.

Joe recognized immediately that he could entrust most of the details of managing library operations to the library's staff. As he told Betsy L. Humphreys in his MLA oral history interview,

I really shied away from all the mechanics of the Library because I knew so little about them that I figured the best thing to do was to let things run until there was trouble, and then you'd have to try to solve them.

This is not to underestimate Joe's contributions: he was a quick study with a brilliant mind, and he had the great ability to recognize potential problems, often before others did.

Joseph Leiter was born on Delancey Street in New York's Lower East Side on May 14, 1915. At nineteen, he graduated from Brooklyn College with a degree in chemistry. After graduation, he found himself at loose ends, with his family unable to afford graduate school tuition and with no financial assistance available in those Depression years. He took a US government exam in science to become a laboratory apprentice, earned a perfect score, and went to work at the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology). After a few years, he received an offer to work at a National Cancer Institute (NCI) laboratory, where he stayed until 1965.

While at NCI, he took a four-year leave of absence to serve in the US Army during World War II and matriculated at Georgetown University, where he received a doctorate in biochemistry in 1949. By the early 1960s, Joe was chief of NCI's Cancer Chemotherapy Service Center. He was one of the pioneer researchers in the United States, working on environmental carcinogens and on developing drug therapies for cancer.

Martin M. Cummings, FMLA, NLM's director, who had inherited the Medical Literature Analysis and Retrieval System (MEDLARS) from his predecessor, Frank Bradway Rogers, had received a favorable letter about the system from Joe. Cummings went to meet Joe and was intrigued with his vast experience in administering contracts at NCI. He wanted someone tough enough to protect the government's interest in working with contractors, and he thought Joe could move the library forward. Surprised that Joe wanted to leave his prestigious NCI job, Cummings hired him as quickly as he could.

Joe wasted no time in taking charge of library operations. He was a task master whose "in your face" style was uncomfortable for many NLM staff. You had to prove to Joe that you knew what you were doing. He often used the Socratic method to "help" staff produce the answer he wanted. For Cummings, Joe's most significant contribution to NLM was his identification and cultivation of a team of young managers with strong technical skills. He encouraged them to take risks and defended their decisions. As manager of the team, Joe directed the development of CATLINE, AVLINE, and the Name Authority File. He involved NLM in national bibliographic programs such as Cataloging-in-Publication (CIP), Cooperative Online Serials Program (CONSER), and Name Authority Cooperative Program (NACO). He boldly disagreed with certain decisions by the Library of Congress and the broader library community because he knew these decisions were not beneficial for users. His actions led to the development of online cataloging at NLM, minimizing the cataloging effort in hundreds of health sciences libraries and saving millions of dollars for those institutions. …

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