Happy Birthday, MeSH: Every time you click search, give thanks

national library of medicine entrance

On November 18, 2010, the medical literature’s, I daresay the world’s, greatest indexing system was born. Medical Subject Headings, MeSH, have led the way in descriptive indexing to support one of the largest, I daresay best, periodical indexes in existence today: MEDLINE. (Oh, and did I mention it’s free?)

In celebration of this glorious day, brew a cup of coffee, and settle in for this abbreviated history of how and why you can find that Chest article on COPD so easily, even though the title of the article has it written as “Chronic Airflow Obstruction“.

MeSH was first published in 1960; in 2010 we observe 50 years of this subject
control authority. The seeds of MeSH were planted in December 1947. The Army
Medical Library awarded a contract to Welch Medical Library of Johns Hopkins
University to study the problems of medical bibliography, with the emphasis on
application of machine methods. The effort also studied the merits of medical
subject headings and was an early step in the development of MeSH.

A Symposium on Medical Subject Headings was held December 12-13, 1947… It
was noted that the increasing complexity of scientific literature
necessitated increasingly sophisticated approaches to organization and
access… The needs of the user of scientific information was to be always at
the forefront in creating a set of medical subject headings that were made
equally for subject description of books and for indexing of journal articles.

The first edition of Medical Subject Headings (MeSH), published in 1960,
represented a departure from the then usual library practice. MeSH contained
4300 descriptors, [and] was designed to be used for both indexing and cataloging…

MeSH continues to evolve and grow. The 2010 edition contains more than
25,000 subject headings in an eleven-level hierarchy and 83 subheadings.

For more glorious indexing information, you can check out the NLM’s MeSH at 50 page. Happy birthday MeSH!


One thought on “Happy Birthday, MeSH: Every time you click search, give thanks

  1. Hello Daniel

    Relevant to the MeSH, is the UMLS project http://www.nlm.nih.gov/research/umls/
    Given the advantages of using MeSH when searching the biomedical data, it would be great if the search engines could utilize bigger portions of the vast knowledge-base contained within UMLS (MeSH is one of the 150 terminologies incorporated into UMLS).
    I believe BioMedLib is the only production-level free-of-charge search engine which tags the Medline articles using the complete set of the 2.3 million concepts of the UMLS. This is like the benefit of using MeSH when searching, but only 100 times greater (MeSH has ~ 25K entry terms, while UMLS has ~ 2.3M).
    For example, for the query COPD http://www.bmlsearch.com/?kwr=COPD BioMedLib finds many relevant articles, both Specific and Sensitive.
    Have a look at the list of synonyms it covers http://www.entityextraction.net/launch?&kwr=copd
    Also look at the disambiguation functionality by clicking on the “Clarify the query” menu option.

    Disclosure: I implement new algorithms for BioMedLib.


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