Mrs. Eileen R. Cunningham

Eileen Cunningham

Eileen Roach Cunningham (1894-1965) was a Vanderbilt Medical librarian, author and international leader in medical librarianship. She developed and published the Cunningham Classification for Medical Literature.

Eileen Cunningham and Eleanor Steinke

Mrs. Eileen Cunningham and Miss Eleanor Steinke in the Vanderbilt Medical Center Library stacks 1947

Eileen Ferguson Roach was born in 1894, the only daughter of a middle-aged Baltimore physician, and played at the feet of such medical luminaries as Sir William Osler and Walter Reed. She was privately educated, spent much of her childhood traveling in Europe, and made her debut in society at age eighteen. This genteel existence ended when her father lost his fortune, forcing young Eileen to find work as a research assistant in the anatomy department at Johns Hopkins. Here she met two important influences on her future life: Miss Marcia Noyes, who gave Eileen her initial training in medical librarianship; and Dr. Sydney Cunningham, whom she married and followed to Vanderbilt when he became Professor of Anatomy in 1925.

Both the Cunninghams took an interest in Vanderbilt's medical library, and Eileen joined the staff in 1926. She promptly developed a new scheme of classifying medical literature by anatomical system, based on her method for filing reprints at Johns Hopkins. Eventually, the Cunningham Classification for Medical Literature went through four published editions and was adopted by medical libraries throughout the world. It was later used as the basis for both the Army Medical Library and the National Library of Medicine's classification plans.

Mrs. Cunningham was appointed Associate Librarian at Vanderbilt School of Medicine in 1928, and later Head Librarian in 1929. Shortly afterward, Mrs. Cunningham became an active member of the Medical Library Association. At its San Francisco convention in 1932, she passed a resolution condemning the high cost of German periodicals, and for the next twenty years chaired the MLA committee charged with obtaining foreign medical and scientific literature. In 1935, she attended the first conference of the International Federation of Library Associations; thereafter, she was to be found at almost every worldwide gathering of librarians that might occur. Mrs. Cunningham's interest in international cooperation took her to South America in 1943, where she assisted in the development of medical libraries in Peru, Colombia, and Brazil. Later, she headed the MLA committee which helped foreign medical librarians obtain grants for training in the United States. Many of these students remained her grateful proteges for years.

Meanwhile, however, Dr. Sydney Cunningham had left Vanderbilt, "ending an era" (as one colleague put it) in the social life of the medical school faculty. Eileen decided to remain, declining offers from the New York Academy of Medicine and the Philadelphia College of Physicians. Her worldwide reputation increased, as responsible assignments with UNESCO and the U.S. State Department were added to her other obligations. In 1947, she became only the third woman president in the Medical Library Association's history; and in 1949, she was honored with the first Marcia C. Noyes Award for medical librarianship. By this date, Eileen Cunningham had undoubtedly become the profession's best known medical librarian.

Although the Noyes Award was perhaps the culmination of her remarkable career, Mrs. Cunningham's energy and dedication never flagged. She worked long into the night, at a pace which astounded those around her. Occasionally, it exhausted them as well, for she could be almost as demanding of her staff as of herself. For years, she ran the medical library at Vanderbilt with a staff of four. Even when she formally "retired" in 1956, Eileen did not take much time for well-earned rest. Within two years, she had gone off to organize the Basic Medical Sciences Institute in Karachi, Pakistan. Thereafter, she continued her travels, attendance at library functions, and public service work. On the day Mrs. Cunningham died (September 20, 1965), she had put in a full afternoon of labor at the Nashville chapter of the United Nations Association. It seemed a fitting end for "the lady who had made Vanderbilt's Medical Library famous around the world."

The Eskind Library also has a collection of Eileen Cunningham's personal papers. For more information, please consult the Inventory of the Eileen Roach Cunningham Papers.


  • Eileen R. Cunningham Collection, Eskind Biomedical Library.
  • Glasgow, Vicki L. "The Contributions of Eileen R. Cunningham to Medical Librarianship." Master's Thesis, University of North Carolina, 1971. Eskind Biomedical Library.