A new addition to this year’s College of Medicine’s Honors Day celebration was the awarding of the John Shaw Billings, MD, Alumni Leadership Award. The award went to Thomas Graham, MD, Class of 1988, who currently serves as chairman of Cleveland Clinic Innovations, vice chair of orthopedics and Justice Family Chair in Medical Innovations.
The award created by Dean Thomas Boat, MD, recognizes an alumnus of the College of Medicine for a career of extraordinary leadership and contributions to medical progress throughout their career. Graham also provided a moving address to the graduating class of 166 students in which he recounted a unique patient perspective following his recent serious illness.
"Dr. Billings died precisely 100 years ago and I’m sure that he would be very pleased, Dr. Graham, that a century later you as a leader in health care innovation are extending the tradition of outstanding contributions to American medicine by one of our medical college graduates. Congratulations for all of your accomplishments,” Boat said in handling Graham the green glass plate Billings Award.
Graham is a native of East Liverpool, Ohio. Following graduation from UC, he completed a residency in orthopedic surgery at the University of Michigan and a fellowship in hand and upper extremity surgery at the Indiana Hand Center. In 1994, he joined the Cleveland Clinic department of orthopedic surgery and three years later became head of its upper extremity division. He was named director of the Curtis National Hand Center and chief of Union Memorial Hospital division of hand surgery in Baltimore in 2000. Graham returned to the Cleveland Clinic in 2010 to lead Cleveland Clinic Innovations, the clinic’s efforts of bringing medical innovations to fruition.
He is widely recognized for his clinical expertise in hand, wrist and elbow surgery with special concentration on complicated reconstruction after trauma, complex elbow disorders and congenital hand surgery. He also has a special focus on the care of hand and elbow disorders of elite athletes and entertainers. Graham holds 10 patents on implants and other devices and has started several medical device companies.
Boat explained that the Billings Award is named for one of the college’s most illustrious alumni, but Billings is unknown to most.
Born in 1838 in Switzerland County, Indiana, he graduated from Miami University in 1857 before enrolling in the Medical College of Ohio, precursor to UC’s College of Medicine. Following his graduation in 1860, Billings joined the medical school’s faculty as a demonstrator of anatomy.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Billings traveled to Washington to take the three-day test for appointment as an assistant surgeon in the US Army. He finished first in the examination and soon was heading military hospitals in Washington, DC, and Philadelphia. Billings later participated in the Battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg treating hundreds of wounded soldiers on the front lines.
Near the end of the war Billings was placed in charge of the Library of the Surgeon General. At the time the library contained 1,800 books and pamphlets. When he left military service in 1895, Billings had grown the library to more than 308,000 volumes making it one of the greatest medical libraries in the world. In 1956 the library’s name was changed to the National Medical Library.
During his 30 years in the Surgeon General’s office, Billings marked numerous achievements. In 1869 he reviewed the country’s 27 Marine hospitals and his report and recommendations paved the way for the network of hospitals to evolve into today’s US Public Health Service. In 1874 he issued a landmark three volume catalog of more than 50,000 titles of books, pamphlets, articles and theses held by the Surgeon General’s Library making it the first catalog of medical literature. In his Medical College of Ohio thesis Billings used sources from 51 authors, most of which were not available to him in Cincinnati. The effort no doubt fostered his desire to create such a catalog for physicians and researchers. In 1879 he began publishing monthly supplements called Index Medicus cataloging current medical literature. The following year he would publish the first of the 16-volume Index Catalog.
Billings also was an expert on the design and construction of hospitals. In 1878 his initial plans were accepted for the design of the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Billings would oversee construction of the hospital, which opened in 1889 and his portrait hangs in the famed hospital’s rotunda, which is appropriately named the Billings Administration Building. Shortly after the turn of the century, Billings would plan Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston.
Billings was internationally known as a physician, medical librarian, public health innovator, educator and researcher. He advocated for changes in pre-, undergraduate and graduate medical education that are today standards of medical education. He participated in the 1880 and 1890 US Censuses and his work in vital statistics resulted in the creation of biostatistics as a science.
He retired from the Army in 1895 and became the first director of the Institute of Hygiene at the University of Pennsylvania. That appointment lasted less than a year as in 1896 Billings was selected as the first director of the New York Public Library. He is credited with pulling together that city’s Lenox, Astor and Tilden libraries into a single library system and encouraging Andrew Carnegie to donate more than $5 million for the construction of 65 branch libraries in New York City. Billings also helped plan and led the construction of the library’s famed main branch on West Fortieth Street.
Billings would receive honorary degrees from Oxford, Dublin, Budapest, Yale and Johns Hopkins universities. He died in 1913 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.