Frederick Noël Lawrence Poynter (24 December 1908 – 11 March 1979) was a British librarian and medical historian who served as director of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine from 1964 to 1973.

Noël Poynter
Frederick Noël Lawrence Poynter. Photograph. Wellcome V0027862.jpg
Noël Poynter[1]
Born24 December 1908
Died11 March 1979 (aged 70)
Known for
Medical career
ProfessionLibrarian and medical historian

In 1958, Poynter was a key player in founding the Faculty of the History of Medicine and Pharmacy of the Society of Apothecaries and subsequently in 1965, he was one of the founding committee members who established the British Society for the History of Medicine (BSHM). He became its president in 1972 and also became secretary-general of the Société Internationale d’Histoire de la Médecine, later becoming its president too.

He published a number of works related to the history of medicine and also edited Medical History, the first British journal devoted exclusively to the history of medicine. During his directorship of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, his advice was readily sought on matters pertaining to the history of medicine and on organisations. His influence was particularly felt with the Bibliographical Society and he was invited to give a number of eponymous lectures. The biennial Poynter lecture is named in his honour.

Early life and careerEdit

Frederick Poynter, commonly known as Noël, was born in London on 24 December 1908, to Herbert William Poynter, who worked in the London docks, and his wife, Margaret (née Gurry). The family were Roman Catholic and he was the seventh of nine children.[2]

He was educated at West Ham secondary school, before studying history at King's College London.[2]

In 1930, following a brief time teaching in a preparatory school, he became a junior library assistant and was involved in the last stages of Sir Henry Wellcome's collections, at a time when the library was situated in the cramped conditions of the former wireless factory near Willesden Junction, north west London. At the time, the librarian was Samuel Arthur Joseph Moorat.[2][3]

Poynter completed his diploma in librarianship in 1936 at the University of London and his bachelor's degree in 1938, when he was promoted to sub-librarian.[2]

Second World WarEdit

Poynter was influenced by the historian Max Neuburger, who joined the Wellcome staff after fleeing Nazi occupied Europe. When library space was allocated at the Wellcome building in Euston Road in 1941, it was Poynter that was appointed to organise the transfer of the books. This was interrupted when he was posted to the Royal Air Force educational branch, but by becoming a fellow of the Library Association, he was able to complete his professional qualifications in 1942. He was demobilised in 1946.[2][4]

The Wellcome LibraryEdit

Pages from Poynter's A Catalogue of Incunabula (1954)[5]
Poynter, Gaskell and Walkins in library reading room[6]

On his return to the library, he was promoted to deputy librarian and formed a successful partnership with W. J. Bishop, who succeeded Moorat. The Wellcome Library officially opened in 1949 and with Bishop he encouraged the development of its services and raised its profile via the medical section of the Library Association. Together, they worked on research and bibliography, and in 1953, they also led the organisation of the first International Congress on Medical Librarianship. Its proceedings, edited by Poynter, were published in 1954. When Bishop resigned in 1953, due to frustrations with the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum and its director, Edgar Ashworth Underwood, Poynter took over as librarian and began in this role with the publication of the quarterly Current Work in the History of Medicine, followed by a catalogue of the library's incunabula.[2][7]

In 1956, Poynter gained a PhD from Westfield College for his work on Gervase Markham. This bibliography was published in 1963.[2]

Medical societiesEdit

In 1958, Poynter was a key player in founding the Faculty of the History of Medicine and Pharmacy of the Society of Apothecaries,[3] serving first as its secretary and editor of its proceedings, and then as its chairman in 1970. Its success led to the foundation of the BSHM in 1965,[2] when he was one of its founding committee members along with William Copeman, Haldane Philp Tait, K. D. Keele, D. Geraint James, Douglas Guthrie, E. S. Clarke and Charles Newman.[8] Between 1965 and 1967, he was president of the Osler Club of London.[9] He became president of the BSHM in 1972.[10]

Poynter was also active in the reorganisation of the Société Internationale d’Histoire de la Médecine, becoming its Secretary-General. He subsequently became the president of the International Academy of the History of Medicine.[3]


Following Bishop's death in 1961, Poynter succeeded him as editor of the first exclusive British journal to the history of medicine, Medical History,[2] a journal he founded and then edited between 1957 and 1973.[8]

He was appointed to the editorial board of the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, with the assistance of his American colleagues.[3]

Director of the Wellcome Institute of the History of MedicineEdit

Edwin Clarke and Noel Poynter. Wellcome[11]

In 1964, Poynter was appointed Director of the Wellcome Institute of the History of Medicine, a position he held until 1973,[3] after which he was succeeded by E. S. Clarke.[12] During his directorship, he became influential, particularly with the Bibliographical Society. His writing activities earned him a Doctorate of Literature. His advice was frequently sought on a variety of topics including organisational and academic themes. He gave a number of lectures, including the Gideon De laune Lecture to the Society of Apothecaries (1964) and the Vicary Lecture at the Royal College of Surgeons (1973).[13]

Personal lifeEdit

In 1939, Poynter married sculptor Ruth Marder. They had no children.[2] She died in 1966 and he remarried two years later, to Dodie. He retired to France in 1973.[13]

Death and legacyEdit

Poynter died on 11 March 1979 at Brive in France, following a short illness.[13] The BSHM biennial Poynter lecture is named in his honour.[8][14] In addition, the Wellcome library's rare materials room has been named the "Poynter room" for him.[2][15]


Poynter at work[16]

In 1951, with his friend Bishop, they published work on the medical attendant of Oliver Cromwell in A Seventeenth Century Doctor and his Patients: John Symcotts, 1592?–1662.[13] Other publications included

  • Selected writings of William Clowes (1948)
  • A Catalogue of Incunabula in the Wellcome Historical Medical Library (Oxford University Press, 1954)
  • A translation of William Harvey's Lectures on the Whole of Anatomy (1961)
  • A Short History of Medicine,[3] with K. D,. Keele (1961)
  • The Journal of James Younge, Plymouth Surgeon (1963)[3]

Selected articlesEdit


  1. ^ "Frederick Noël Lawrence Poynter. Photograph". Wellcome Collection. Retrieved 1 May 2019.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Symons, John. "Poynter, Frederick Noël Lawrence (1908–1979), librarian and medical historian | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001 (inactive 2020-01-22). Retrieved 27 April 2019.(subscription required)
  3. ^ a b c d e f g "Noël Poynter". British Society for the History of Medicine. Retrieved 29 April 2019.
  4. ^ John Symons (1993). A Short History. The Wellcome Trust. pp. 32.
  5. ^ "F. N. L. Poynter, A catalogue of incunabula". Wellcome Collection. Retrieved 1 May 2019.
  6. ^ "Catalogue search". Wellcome Collection. Retrieved 6 May 2019.
  7. ^ "History of the Wellcome Library". Retrieved 29 April 2019.
  8. ^ a b c "The British Society for the History of Medicine Foundation". Medical History. 9 (4): 390–391. 1965. doi:10.1017/s0025727300031069. PMC 1033538.
  9. ^ "Presidents – The Osler Club of London". Retrieved 3 October 2019.
  10. ^ "Poynter; F. N. L. Archives – Bedfordshire Historical Record Society". Retrieved 27 April 2019.
  11. ^ "Edwin Clarke and Noel Poynter. Photograph by BIPS". Wellcome Collection. Retrieved 1 May 2019.
  12. ^ Bynum, William. "Munks Roll Details for Edwin Sisterson Clarke". Retrieved 3 May 2019.
  13. ^ a b c d Keele, K D (July 1979). "Frederick Noël Lawrence Poynter, B.A., Ph.D., F.L.A., F.R.S.L., Hon. D. Litt. (California), Hon. M.D. (Kiel). 24 December 1908 – 11 March 1979". Medical History. 23 (3): 352–354. doi:10.1017/s0025727300051826. ISSN 0025-7273. PMC 1082481. PMID 395381.
  14. ^ "Past Lectures". British Society for the History of Medicine. Retrieved 1 May 2019.
  15. ^ Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine (1993). Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine [electronic resource] : a brief description. Wellcome Library. London : The Institute.
  16. ^ "Photograph of F.N.L. Poynter". Wellcome Collection. Retrieved 1 May 2019.

External linksEdit

  Media related to Noël Poynter at Wikimedia Commons