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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