Those of us interested in digital content and open access were pleased by the recent release of over 100,000 images from London's Wellcome Library, a leading institution devoted to medical history. The images, released under a Creative Commons Attribution license, span a period of 3,000 years and range from the stunningly beautiful to the sick-making, with occasional overlaps.
Paintings, prints, photographs and manuscripts are divided into historical and contemporary categories. Browsing through the Library's photographs of historical medical instruments can be slightly harrowing, with ample reminders of the barbarity barely concealed beneath the surface of medicine for millennia. The Roman surgical shears of 199 BCE look slightly rustier than the Parisian amputation knife of the 1700s, but the ordeal itself probably changed little over a two-thousand-year period.
The contemporary images show not just a modern understanding of biology, but a radically new way of seeing. Anatomical illustrations are replaced by imaging techniques that include confocal micrographs, flourescence staining, and scanning electron microscopy. The ornate wood and metal anatomical models of previous centuries now give way to 3-D printed nylon rib cages.
Simon Chaplin, Head of the Wellcome Library, says, “As a strong supporter of open access, we want to make sure these images can be used and enjoyed by anyone without restriction.” With many institutions taking similar steps (another 70,000 images from the history of medicine can be found in the The National Library of Medicine's online database), it's a laudable project, and a welcome addition to the growing list of cultural heritage institutions embracing digital content.