Download 100,000+ Images From The History of Medicine, All Free Courtesy of The Wellcome Library

L0043496 Ambroise Pare: prosthetics, mechanical hand

The Wellcome Library, in London, specializes in the history of medicine. While the institution has long offered a good digital collection for browsing, the library announced yesterday that they are making more than 100,000 historical images free to download under a Creative Commons CC-BY license. (Users can distribute, edit, or remix at will; the license even allows for commercial use, with attribution.)

The Wellcome’s holdings represent the institution’s long-term interest in collecting art related to medicine, the body, public health, and medical science. The drop-down menu labeled “Technique” in the standard search box returns a staggering array of types of visual culture, from aquatint to carving to fresco to X-ray. The library reports that the earliest image available is from 400 AD: a fragment of papyrus from an illustrated herbal manuscript, featuring a faded color drawing of a plant.

L0031627 Mastectomy, attributed to a Dutch artist, 17th century

Some images in the collection are, perhaps unsurprisingly, squirm-inducing (an 1851 Japanese woodcut showing an amputation of the lower leg; a Dutch etching depicting a 17th-c mastectomy; a German illustration showing 17th-century monks performing eye surgery). But there is plenty of beauty here, as well. I loved an a 19th-c woodcut of a sumo match, and a Tibetan illustrated manuscript used in the production of medicines.

L0038345 Tibetan plant manuscript Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Illustrations of Tibetan materia medica, plant and animal, used in the production of medicine. Title: 'A Selection of Substances used for the Production of Medicine based on the Teaching of the four (medical) Tantras' This anonymous manuscript is written in the 'Trungpa' ('khrungs dpe) genre of Tibetan medical literature. Entitled, 'Sman bla'i dgongs rgyan rgud bzhi'i nang gi 'khrungs dpe re zhig', it deals with various material medica, plant and animal, used in the production of medicine. The book comprises unbound sheets of thick (perhaps Russian?) paper held together by two boards and wrapped in a piece of cloth. The medical illustrations are finished in colour. The manuscript is very rare and obviously very expensive. Its owner made a significant effort to obtain illustrations for every medicine mentioned, including plants, stones and animals. There are several suggestions about the origin of the manuscript. It might well be a copy from Sangye Gyatso's 'tankas', possibly written by a painter or doctor who travelled from Mongolia to Lhasa. It could have been transcribed in Tibet and subsequently sold to Mongolia. There is a similarity between the images of material medica in this manuscript and those found in the 19th century Tibetan xylographs of medical works, like the 'Mdzes mtshar mig rgyan', which circulated in the territory of Mongolia in the nineteenth century. 18th century Sman bla'i dgongs rgyan rgud bzhi'i nang gi 'khrungs dpe re zhig 'A Selection of Substances used for the Production of Medicine based on the Teaching of the four (medical) Tantras Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Browsers interested in dipping a toe into the stream of images may try out the galleries listed on the Images homepage. The “Olympic Sports” gallery offers an 1829 engraving of the famous conjoined twins Chang and Eng holding badminton rackets, and an 1870 illustration of recommended ring exercises for lady gymnasts. The “Witchcraft” collection (under the “Favourites” tab) contains many illustrations from historical books covering witchcraft in Europe and the American colonies, along with a more surprising 19th-century Malayan black-magic charm.

Rights-managed images are marked as such in the thumbnail results that appear after a search. Although the archive requires you to enter a CAPTCHA to access the free images, you can select several thumbnails on the search-results page in order to bulk-download files for many images at the same time. The sample files I requested arrived on my desktop at 300 dpi.

The image above is an illustration of a mechanical hand from 1564.

h/t @kirstinbutler

Rebecca Onion is a writer and academic living in Philadelphia. She runs’s history blog, The Vault. Follow her on Twitter: @rebeccaonion

Related Content:

The British Library Puts 1,000,000 Images into the Public Domain, Making Them Free to Reuse & Remix

The Getty Puts 4600 Art Images Into the Public Domain (and There’s More to Come)

The National Gallery Makes 25,000 Images of Artwork Freely Available Online

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