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Tompkins-McCaw Library Background and History

Nationally, Tompkins-McCaw Library for the Health Sciences is a top-tier health sciences library. It holds one of the largest and most extensive collections of health sciences literature in North America. The library primarily serves the MCV Campus, which houses one of the oldest medical schools in the South, founded in 1838. The library, in one form or location or another, has been a part of the medical campus since 1897. Located on 12th Street—two blocks north of the Gateway Building at the VCU Medical Center and within easy walks to the schools of Medicine, Dentistry, Pharmacy, Nursing and Allied Health Sciences—the library is physically central to today’s health sciences campus.  It provides access to affiliated students, faculty, clinicians and practicing health care professionals on and off campus.

In 2012, the National Science Foundation ranked VCU 79th in research expenditures in a survey of more than 900 institutions  During fiscal year 2012, the VCU Libraries invested 54 percent of its funding in library materials. The majority of these collections funds were committed to journal subscription, as is typical of academic research libraries supporting a significant research enterprise with large life science and biomedical science programs. In 2012-13, VCU funded the first year of a multi-year plan to grow its libraries to meet the University’s Quest for Distinction goals.  Funds to acquire library materials were increased by $922,000, and the VCU Libraries projects expenditures for library materials to total about $9.6 million in 2012-13.  

What’s in a name? Tompkins and McCaw

For almost 20 years, the Medical College of Virginia's (MCV) Georgian-style building at 509 North 12th Street was known simply as the "College Library." In the winter of 1950, several administrators, including Comptroller Major-General William F. Tompkins, USA, retired, recommended naming the library in recognition of five members of two prominent Virginia families. The MCV Board of Visitors approved the name "Tompkins-McCaw Library" on March 10, 1950, honoring General Tompkins' great aunt, maternal grandfather, uncle, father and brother.  The honorees were:

  • Sally Louisa Tompkins (1833-1916) was born and raised at Popular Grove in Mathews County before moving to Richmond following the death of her father on the eve of the Civil War. In July of 1861, Tompkins opened, and equipped at her own expense, a private hospital in the home of Judge John Robertson. When the Confederate Congress legislated military control of all hospitals housing soldiers, Tompkins appealed to President Jefferson Davis to continue her role as administrator of the Robertson Hospital. Davis, impressed by the hospital's exceptional record of returning men to the field, authorized its continuance by commissioning Tompkins as a captain in the Confederate forces. She was the only woman commissioned as a officer in the Confederate army. Following the war, she returned to a life of relative anonymity dedicating herself to her church and other charitable work. The final years of her life were spent as a guest in the Home for Confederate Women. She left $1,000 of her meager estate to the Memorial Hospital of MCV.
  • Christopher Tompkins (1847-1918), a Richmond native and nephew of Sally Tompkins, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the College of William and Mary in 1868. He spent a year pursuing additional liberal arts education at the University of Virginia and ultimately graduated from MCV in 1870. Following supplemental medical studies in New York City, he returned to Richmond to establish his practice. In 1876, he returned to MCV as adjunct professor of anatomy and subsequently professor of general and special anatomy. The MCV faculty elected Tompkins dean in the spring of 1893, and he served in this capacity until the 1913 amalgamation of MCV and the University College of Medicine. In 1877, Tompkins married Bessie McCaw, daughter of James Brown McCaw.
  • Representing the fifth generation of physicians, James McCaw Tompkins (1877-1946), son of Christopher Tompkins and Bessie McCaw, is the only namesake with a blood relationship to all those honored in the library's name. Mac Tompkins, as he was known to his friends, graduated from the University of Virginia before taking his M.D. at MCV in 1906. Following postgraduate training at Johns Hopkins University, and in New York and Boston, he returned to Richmond to establish a practice in general medicine. He cared for many famous Richmonders, including the dying Ellen Glasgow in 1945. Like his father and grandfather, Tompkins held a teaching position at MCV and then ended his career by serving on the Board of Visitors.
  • James Brown McCaw (1823-1906) was born and received his preliminary education in Richmond. He was the fourth in a line of Virginia physicians of the same name. McCaw studied with noted surgeon Valentine Mott and graduated from the University of the City of New York in 1844. His 43-year association with MCV began in 1858 when he accepted the position of professor of chemistry. During the Civil War, McCaw gained fame as the able administrator of the Chimborazo Hospital, one of the Confederacy's largest medical facilities. McCaw continued his teaching responsibilities throughout the war and the lean, painful years of Reconstruction. He was elected chairman of the faculty and later dean, a position he held until 1883. A great music lover, McCaw served for many years as president of the Mozart Society of Richmond. Upon retirement, McCaw accepted an appointment to the MCV Board of Visitors where he served until his death.
  • The final individual recognized in the library's name was James Brown McCaw's son, Walter Drew McCaw (1863-1939). Of all the family members acknowledged in the library's name, Walter Drew McCaw's is probably the most appropriate. McCaw also graduated from MCV and then earned a second M.D. from Columbia University in 1884. He was commissioned assistant surgeon and served in a variety of posts over the next 20 years, earning the Silver Star Citation and a Distinguished Service Medal. In 1903, he was called to Washington, D.C., and assigned librarian of the Army Medical Library, forerunner of the National Library of Medicine. At the suggestion of Sir William Osler, McCaw pulled together the library's collection of historical classics and incunabula, placing them in a locked room to insure their preservation for future generations. McCaw also encouraged budding medical historian Fielding H. Garrison, who dedicated his monumental work, An Introduction to the History of Medicine, to McCaw. Although he excelled as librarian, McCaw was not content to serve out his military career at the Army Medical Library. He left to fulfill an assignment in the Philippines en route to his ultimate appointment as chief surgeon of the American Expeditionary Force during World War I. McCaw retired from the Army in 1927 after 43 years of service.

See also VCU Libraries history and timeline

Health Sciences Library

509 N. 12th St., Box 980582
Richmond, VA 23298-0582
Toll-free: (844) 352-7399
Local: (804) 828-0636

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