A colage of open books, posters, and titlepages.

Images and Texts in Medical History

By Jeffrey S. Reznick

Next week, the National Library of Medicine (NLM) will host the workshop Images and Texts in Medical History: An Introduction to Methods, Tools, and Data from the Digital Humanities. The event is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) through a generous grant to Virginia Tech, and it will be held in cooperation with Virginia Tech, The Wellcome Library and The Wellcome Trust. The workshop is part of the NLM’s ongoing partnership with the NEH to develop initiatives that bring together specialists from the humanities, medicine, and information sciences to share expertise and develop new interdisciplinary research, teaching, and public policy agendas related to the fields of medical history, digital humanities, librarianship, and data science. More broadly, these engagements reflect our important trajectory here in the NLM History of Medicine Division to cooperate with our colleagues and like-minded partners in embracing the future as stewards of the past.

Logos for National Endowment for the Humanities, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Wellcome Library, Virginia Tech: Invent the Future


New Access to Images and Texts

Coinciding with the workshop, we have some exciting news to share…about images and texts, of course! Our popular collection of tens of thousands of historical medical images, which has been available for years through our database Images from the History of Medicine, is now available through NLM Digital Collections alongside over 16,000 books and videos. The collection includes portraits, photographs, fine prints, caricatures, posters, and other graphic art, and it encompasses subjects ranging from medieval astrology to 19th century slum conditions to World War I hospitals to the international fights against drug abuse and AIDS. The collection also includes all of the images from the freely-available book Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine which showcases the NLM and its remarkable historical collections. Now you can search this entire image collection more easily alongside our digitized books and videos, and you can download selected images more seamlessly.

This image collection is also now discoverable through Open-iSM, the Open Access Biomedical Image Search Engine, a research tool of the NLM Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications (LHNCBC), which develops advanced health information resources and software tools that are widely used in biomedical research and by health IT professionals, health care providers, and consumers. In addition to these historical images, Open-iSM provides access to over 3 million images from approximately one million articles in the Open Access subset of PubMed Central, and to chest x-rays with corresponding radiology reports provided by Indiana University, and to the orthopedic surgical anatomy teaching collection provided by the Digital Library of the University of Southern California. You can search Open-iSM collections by traditional text queries, or by uploading an image of your choice to see if Open-iSM contains a similar image. Open-iSM also allows you to put together collections of historical and contemporary biomedical images, compare and contrast the search results provided by these distinct collections, and follow links to additional information at the original sites of the collections.

The new availability of our historical images in NLM Digital Collections and Open-iSM paves the way to decommissioning our Images in the History of Medicine database, which will occur early this summer.

These developments around images here at the NLM join equally wonderful news from our colleagues at the Wellcome Library, which recently released all its images—over 100,000—under a CC-BY license. Reflecting thousands of years of visual culture and encompassing manuscripts, paintings, etchings, and early photography and advertisements, these images can be downloaded directly from the Wellcome Images website, and you can freely copy, distribute, edit, manipulate and build upon them as you wish, and use them for personal or commercial use.

And the great news to share about texts involves PubMed Central (PMC), a free, full-text digital archive of journals developed by NCBI. With the permission of journals that participated in the first PMC Back Issues Digitization project, PMC is taking steps to make the optical character recognition (OCR) files of a subset of this vast historical collection available in a format that will facilitate text mining and analysis. Available here, this historical OCR collection will initially contain OCR files of nearly 280,000 articles from the British Medical Journal, dating back to 1840. And there is more to come in the future, as we noted in a recent post on visualizing the historical holdings of PubMed Central. The NLM and the Wellcome Trust are now working together to expand PMC’s historical holdings in the area of mental health and general medicine, a collaboration that will add substantially to the current total PMC archive of over 3.8 million articles.

For this new access to historical images and texts here at the NLM, credit and thanks are due the fantastic work of my colleagues, including the teams who oversee development of NLM Digital Collections repository, curate the Library’s rich image collections, advance NCBI research tools, and manage PMC.

So, to everyone who plans to attend the workshop next week, whether in-person or virtually, my colleagues and I welcome you! And to anyone who wishes to use our historical collections and resources for research, teaching, and learning, we welcome your inquires to our reference desk and your visit, whether online or onsite here on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

Images and Texts in Medical History: An Introduction to Methods, Tools, and Data from the Digital Humanitieswill be held April 11-13 in the NIH Natcher Conference Center in Bethesda, MD. Two sessions will be free and open to the public. Current information about NIH campus access and security is here. The Keynote Address on Tuesday, April 12, at 11:15 ET will be live-streamed globally and subsequently archived for future viewing, and if you are on Twitter you can follow us @medhistimage and at #medhistws.

Stay tuned all this week as Circulating Now brings you interviews with the scholars who will be presenting at “Images and Texts in Medical History.”

Thanks to my colleagues Simon Chaplin, Dina Demner-Fushman, E. Thomas Ewing, Kathryn Funk, Jennifer Serventi, and Rebecca Warlow for their support and contributions to this post, and for all of our collaborations that are directly benefiting researchers, educators, students, and the general public.

Portrait of Jeffrey S. Reznick in the HMD Reading RoomJeffrey S. Reznick, PhD, is Chief of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.


  1. Thank you for your feedback, and you are most welcome! All best to you and your colleagues at the Marshfield Clinic, from all of us here at the NLM!

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