Thursday 10 July 2014

A very welcome development – Michelle Lovric

The history of medicine is the history of mankind. We know ourselves through the adversities our bodies face and the ways in which, through the ages, we have confronted them. Our cultural identities are aligned with and imprinted on our bodily operations. It is medical history that records plagues including AIDS, tattoos, sport and eating patterns, keeping the most scrupulous records of our physical existence.

This post is about a refreshing new development in the field of medical history, and includes a set of images that demonstrate just how wide a field is covered by that term. All the illustrations in this blog come from one place: Wellcome Images.
Venus's Bathing (Margate). A woman diving off a bathing wagon in to the sea,
       hand coloured etching by Thomas Rowlandson, 1790
The Wellcome Trust has recently taken the plunge (forgive me! but I love this picture) of making its historical images freely available for download for personal, academic teaching or study use, under one of two Creative Commons licences. Hi-res historical images are also available to download free of charge, for any usage, under a Creative Commons Attribution Only. Historical images are free of all reproduction fees.

This news will bring shock and awe (in a good way) to those of us who have had to laboriously and expensively negotiate reproduction rights for books, PowerPoint presentation and blogs.

Not only is this a most generous gesture by the Wellcome, but there’s an impressively well managed image bank site. Searches are easy and extensive. Each free-usage picture comes with the Wellcome Library attribution embedded in it, so one doesn’t have to accessorise and clot up one’s text with attributions as with (the much appreciated) Wikimedia commons, for example.
Effigy of the false Imposter (Satan) sitting on a brass throne wearing on his head a crown like the tiara of the Pope. From the Histoires Prodigieuses, by Pierre Boaistuau, a sixteenth-century French writer presented to Queen Elizabeth I in 1560.

Wellcome searches enable the user to consult History, Contemporary or Historical & Contemporary. Advanced search options include date and medium (i.e. carving or painting).

When searching, it is easy to see which images are free usage: those that require clearance are labelled ‘rights managed’ even in the search thumbnails.

Clearly a great deal of thought has gone into this process. So this month I interviewed Simon Chaplin, head of the Wellcome Library, about the developments.

ML Can you tell me briefly about the history of the Wellcome collection of images and how it started?

Wellcome Images is an amalgam of two things: the Wellcome Trust’s medical photographic library, and the picture collections of the Wellcome Library. As the delivery of images has moved from analogue to digital, so these have been combined into one service, Wellcome Images. Today we have hundreds of thousands of digital images freely available online at, covering the history of medicine and current biomedical science and clinical practice.

ML Can you explain how all the different parts of the Wellcome Trust work – the Image Library, the Library, the Collection, the Trust, and anything else I have forgotten?

Henry Solomon Wellcome, 1906. Oil painting by Hugh Goldwin Riviere

We’re all part of the Wellcome Trust, the charitable foundation set up by pharmacist and collector Henry Wellcome. Our mission is to improve human and animal health by supporting research and public engagement around biomedical science. In line with Henry’s vision, this also includes understanding the place of medicine in culture, past and present. Like the BBC, we have different elements that serve different audiences – Wellcome Collection is our public exhibition and event venue, the Wellcome Library supports researchers interested in the place of medicine in culture, Wellcome Images serves up images drawn from all of our activities. There’s lots of parts to Wellcome, but underneath it we all share a common purpose.

ML I believe you are the first major picture library to take this unusual step of freeing your historical images for use. Is that true?

I’d love to say we are, but actually we’re part of a growing trend. In the US federally-funded institutions such as the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian have always made their out-of-copyright collections freely available. More recently places like the Rijksmuseum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have made high-resolution images freely available. We’ve gone  a step further than some by allowing anyone to use the images for any purpose rather than just restricting them for educational or private research use.

ML What was the thinking behind this move?

Our mission is to encourage knowledge creation and engagement. What matters to us is that people find and use our images, so the fewer restrictions we have in place the better. It helps that for us generating revenue isn’t the most important factor – we have Henry Wellcome’s endowment and the team who manage it to thank for that. But I think that even for museums and libraries that don’t have the same kind of funding that we do, there is often not much profit to be made from selling rights to your images when you factor in all the time needed to manage permissions, negotiate fees and then ensure that people are following the rules!

Picturesque sales techniques for medical wares

ML Do you think other big image banks, like Bridgeman, Getty or similar will follow suit?

I think it’s different for commercial images libraries – clearly they need to make a profit, as do people whose livelihoods depend on the copyright they own on images they’ve created (just like authors!). But like music and publishing companies they are adapting to a changing environment, and I think there is growing awareness that in some cases it is better to embrace limited free use than to become a kind of digital Canute. For example, Getty has recently made millions of its images freely ‘embeddable’ in web pages.

ML The Wellcome Trust has a vast collection of medical history artefacts. Are modern photographs of the artefacts included in the free usage?

Yes, the free images include modern photographs of objects in the library collection or in the Wellcome collections held at the Science Museum in London (like this one,, which is a good reminder of why locking precious things up is sometimes not the best solution)
Wax anatomical figure of a woman, by Clemente Susini, Florence, 1771-1800

ML What kind of images are restricted in use? This is because the copyright rests with the photographer or artist?

We have some images that are only freely available for educational or private research use. This is because they’ve been supplied to us by photographers or artists who trust us to manage the image rights on their behalf. When we license these we pass the fees back to the photographer. It’s a good system – they benefit, and we help achieve our mission because we have these fantastic images that can be used for education and research (as our Wellcome Image Awards demonstrates,

The life and horrible adventures of the celebrated Dr. Faustus; relating his first introduction to Lucifer,  and connection with infernal spirits; his method of raising the Devil, and his final dismissal to the tremendous abyss of Hell, 1825

ML Tell me a little about the length and breadth of the image collection and what are its biggest strengths, in your opinion?

Where to begin? Well, our images reflect the wonderful variety of stuff we have in the Wellcome Library for a start – so illustrations from printed books and manuscripts, paintings, prints, drawings and photographs and so on, mostly relating to medicine or health in some way, but not all. For example, our collections are strong on subjects like travel, food and religion – all of which are closely associated with health and well-being. (Ed. note - and animal well-being: see below)

A group of dandies stand by while a lady's dog receives an enema. Coloured engraving.

Our collections are strong in non-western material so we have a lot of illustrations from East and South Asian manuscripts as well.

Early 18th-century Chinese woodcut illustrating 24 types of external haemorrhoids. From Yizong jinjian: Waike xinfa (The Golden Mirror Of Medicine: Essential Knowledge and Secrets of External Medicine)

ML I understand that there are new developments underway for the Research Library.

We’re in the process of revamping it, creating a new public library – which visitors can go into without becoming a member – alongside the research library. We want to encourage people to use our collections for study, and to explore what we have but we also recognise that a good research environment should be quite and not crowded, so separating the two seemed like a better way to go. The research library is almost finished – it has a richer feel, with more paintings on the walls and colour in the décor. And on a practical level we’ve enlarged our rare materials room so there’s more space for people wanting to look at archives, manuscripts and older books.

Miniature of St Luke, patron saint of medicine, and the beginning of the third Gospel. Transcribed by Shmawon the scribe and illuminated by Abraham for the sponsor Lady Nenay – Armenia Gospel of 1495

ML How easy is it for a novelist or researcher to become a member of the Wellcome Library?

About as easy as it can be: you turn up, you show us some picture id and proof of address and we give you a membership card. It’s all free and membership lasts five years before you need to renew it.
The evolution of a writer: a fox riding a goose turns into a writer seated at his typewriter - which in  turn evolves into accordion, bellows, money-bag, and handcuffs; satirising Darwin's theories. Wood engraving after C. Bennett, 1863.

ML Once they are members, they have access to all kinds of materials by remote access, something I have found very useful in own my work. Can you tell us a little about the electronic collections available to writers remotely?

I’m a historian of the 18th century so the ones I love best are the Burney collection of newspapers from the British Library – read the small ads in particular for a wonderful insight into texture of life in Georgian England – and Jisc Historic Books, which brings together three vast collections of English printed books from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. There’s a full list of all the journals and databases we subscribe to here:

ML And there are plans to expand the remote resources too, by digitizing a substantial proportion of its holdings and making the content freely available on the web. This already includes some cover-to-cover historical books, but I understand that you are now working to upload video and audio, entire archive collections and manuscripts, paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, ephemera and more. What is the thinking behind this?
We’ve realised that while the Wellcome Library is a wonderful place to come and work and look at our collections in person, there’s many more people out there who’d love to make use of our collections but can’t get to London. So digitising our collections helps us share them more widely. We started with images, but have expanded into books and archives and we’re increasing the pace now. We aim to have about 50 million pages online by the time we’re done – we’re about a fifth of the way there. We’ve digitised archives about genetics and eugenics, reports about public health in Victorian London, books about sex and crime (which will link to exhibitions we have planned in Wellcome Collection).

Sex and crime: The rape of Proserpine. Engraving after Titian.

We are just starting two projects, one to do all the 19th-century medical books we can lay our hands on and the other to do all of our mediaeval manuscripts. All of the stuff we’ve digitised is completely free – you don’t even need to be a library member to see it online.
Witchcraft: a white-faced witch meeting a black-faced witch with a great beast. Woodcut, 1720

ML I understand that you also have picture researchers on staff who can help? Is that a free service? What is offered?

We have expert and very helpful staff who can help point you in the right direction, but we can’t do your picture research for you! We are trying to make our catalogues and image library as straightforward and easy to search as possible, and are making sure that our images are also indexed by google. We’d love to offer personal service to users but with over 40,000 visitors to the library a year, and over half a million images downloaded each year, we’d need to hire hundreds of people!

 ML We first knew one another when you were at the Hunterian Collection. I know you have personal research interests in medical history too. Can you tell me a little more about how you came to be involved in this field?

I really wanted to be a marine biologist, but I realised quite early on that my role model (Doc, from Steinbeck’s Cannery Row) wasn’t a reliable indicator of life as a research scientist. Instead I was drawn into the history of science and medicine at university and loved the subject. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to work at three institutions – the Science Museum, where I began my career; the Hunterian museum; and now the Wellcome Library – which all have a strong connection with medical history and a desire to see this translate into things that really appeal to non-specialist audiences. I loved the Hunterian, where I helped plan the redisplay of John Hunter’s collection of anatomy and pathology specimens – things which were for too long hidden away from non-medics, but which deserve to be seen and celebrated as the masterpieces of science and skill that they are.
Sir Joshua Reynolds, President of the Royal Academy at Somerset House, holding his ear trumpet. To his    left is Dr. William Hunter who was Professor of anatomy at the Academy and is directing the arrangement of a male model. Johann Zoffany, 1783

ML Clearly you believe that there is a place for writers of fiction in the field of medical history?

History of medicine is a thriving academic discipline, and has a strong following among professional historians and doctors and others who have a part-time interest. It’s a natural thing to see this knowledge feed in to fiction: it’s such a rich subject, and speaks so strongly to the human condition. And in turn, authors writing fiction can bring the subject to new audiences, so there’s a mutually beneficial reciprocal relationship.

An early History Girl: Anna Seward (1747- 1809), writer, literary critic and correspondent. Stipple Engraving 1823 by J. Chapman

ML The Wellcome offers opportunities for writers in various ways – even to writers of fiction, with the Wellcome Prize for the best book published on a medical theme each year. Can you tell us about the thinking behind that prize, one of the most valuable in the publishing industry?

The Wellcome Book Prize is open to fiction and non-fiction writers in any genre that touches on medicine, health and illness.  The Prize, and the brilliant writers it attracts, is uniquely placed to provoke, excite and sustain interest and debate in the many forms these experiences take.  We’ve revamped the prize this year and it is now a central part of our commitment to literature as a means of inspiring and nourishing curious minds.

ML There are other opportunities for fiction writers at the Wellcome too, I understand. Engagement Fellowships …? Can you explain?

The Wellcome Trust’s Engagement Fellowships enable talented communicators to make real advances in public engagement around biomedical science and the medical humanities. We fund people for up to two years, and the strength of the scheme is the diverse range of their disciplines, from clinicians to historians. We welcome applications from established writers and artists – one of this year’s Fellows is the award-winning poet Lavinia Greenlaw. The Trust also runs a Screenwriting Fellowship with the BFI, in association with Film4.

ML Finally, an obvious question but one I cannot resist asking. What is your personal favourite among the images at the moment?

It’s this one:, the reverse of an advert for Brooke’s Soap from our ephemera collection. I got it printed on to a cover for my phone, which (a) looks like a bar of soap and (b) can do lots of things but won’t wash clothes!

                 Thank you, Simon, and many thanks to the Wellcome, too.
Michelle Lovric's website

Her latest novel, The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters, was published last month by Bloomsbury.


Sue Purkiss said...

Fascinating, and very helpful - thanks, Michelle!

Clare Mulley said...

Excellent, thank you.

Suzi Love said...

Thank you so much for the information and the chance to learn more about using historical images. Such a relief that we are now able to use so many for historical research purposes.