The Santa Barbara County Genealogical Society

Sahyun Library

by Cari Thomas and John Woodward, Members of the Santa Barbara County Genealogy Society

The dream of all "homeless" genealogy societies came true for the Santa Barbara County Genealogical Society (SBCGS) in June 1998, when the family of Dr. Melville Sahyun, a local medical pioneer, donated his historic laboratory property to the SBCGS to be used as a non-circulating library for family history research.            

In 1972, two women placed an ad in the Santa Barbara newspaper, looking for others searching for roots; the response was the origin of the SBCGS. Since then, the society had met in members' homes, a community center, a public library, and churches. The society's "library" began when members, willing to donate their books, kept the books in their homes and carried them to the meetings.            

By early 1998, the SBCGS library had grown to more than 4,500 books and was housed on jury-rigged shelving in two rented rooms of about 600 sq. ft., along with a computer, photocopier, desk, microfiche reader, six filing cabinets, and an 8' reading table! The library was bursting at the seams; and the society, at 475 members, continued to grow.

Then the dream came true: the family of Dr. Melville Sahyun, looking for a meaningful way to honor the life of this world-renowned biochemist, heard about the SBCGS and its search for a new home.

Dr. Melville Sahyun was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and came to Santa Barbara in 1923 to participate in diabetes and cancer research at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital. In 1929 he became an American citizen and in 1931 was awarded the Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Physiology from Stanford University.

In the mid-30's he discovered the first practical method of producing crystalline insulin in its purest form, making the hormone available to millions of diabetics worldwide. His method, with modifications, is still used today in the commercial production of insulin.

Further research during World War II led to his development of the first injectable amino acid preparation, "Parenamine," used to rebuild cell tissues of victims of severe burns, wounds and serious diseases.

In 1950 he established the independent scientific Sahyun Laboratories in Santa Barbara, where more than 50 discoveries were made, mostly for prescription medicines. The best known of these discoveries is "Visine"TM for reducing eye inflammation. 

Dr. Sahyun, who died in 1977, was granted 40 U.S. patents, published 80 papers, and authored two books.

Mrs. Geraldine Valde Sahyun, Dr. Sahyun's widow, was a descendant of an early Santa Barbara pioneer from England; she had an abiding interest in Santa Barbara history as a noted translator of early Spanish documents and as the co-author of the book, "Voyage of the Princesa," based on her translation of a Spanish ship's log of an early journey along the California coast. Mrs. Sahyun died in December 1999.

With their love of books and family history, and their ties to Santa Barbara, the Sahyun family chose the SBCGS to be the recipient of the one and a half acre grounds in downtown Santa Barbara. The park-like setting with redwoods and stone pines, rose bushes, and fruit trees has seven buildings, including an 1880s Victorian house, and the 2,600 sq. ft. Spanish-style laboratory-now the Sahyun Library and home of the SBCGS.            

In the first nine months after the society took title to the property and started the transformation of the laboratory, volunteers tore out existing fixtures, walls, and plumbing; rebuilt walls and painted the entire interior; built by hand 960 linear feet of beautiful oak library shelving, supplemented those with an additional 18 sections of metal shelving for periodicals; transported and reshelved 580 linear feet of genealogical books, maps, and periodicals; built a new handicapped restroom with tiled floor and walls; and even re-bricked the entryway! We were ready to welcome researchers!

Now our library holdings contain some 20,000 items, comprised of books, periodicals, microform (film & fiche), CDs, maps, and a collection of genealogical audio and video tapes. Strengths of the collection include: California, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the British Isles, as well as Quakers, military pension and service indexes, and sources for immigration.  The library catalog is available in print and on all computers at the Sahyun Library and is accessible on-line via a link on this Society website.            

The SBCGS welcomes visiting genealogists. Travel to our South Coast and combine the beauties of Santa Barbara, the beach, and your favorite way of spending leisure time! Come, visit, and use - the Sahyun Library! 
(Updated  2011)