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January 26, 2008

The National Museum of Health & Medicine: archival images on Flickr

Afipnurses_2 Earlier today, I had a phone conversation with Michael Rhode, Archivist at the Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) in Wash, DC.

This was prompted by a blog post I read at Morbid Anatomy [the really old term for the discipline now called pathology] detailing the project by the Museum to post images on Flickr, so that the general public can use them as they wish or make comments on Flickr that might help explain the content of the photos. BoingBoing.net also picked up this story, but Michael tells me that access to this site is blocked at the AFIP. (Those subversive BoingBoingists.)

They've been creating groups on Flickr since 2006, uploading about 200 photos to each group, here, and here, and these are the favorite photos from the Archives staff.

This will give some background into what they hope to accomplish:

Afipsixtoes_2 The National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM) of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology has been working with Information Manufacturing Corporation (IMC) to scan its Medical Illustration Service (MIS) Library. The MIS Library is one of the NMHM's largest collections, with 4,500 boxes of medical photographs.

The Library was transferred to the Museum in late 2004, and houses millions of photographs from World War II through the 1990s representing diseases and their effects on humans and animals.  Included in the collection are rare illnesses such as smallpox and the Asian flu. Over 71,000 images have already been scanned and are currently almost completely catalogued and indexed including three major groups of photographs:  the Museum and Medical Arts Service (MAMAS) photographs taken by Museum staff during WWII in Europe and Asia, images from the "Atlas of Tropical and Extraordinary Diseases",and historical portraits.

Afipor This year scanning includes 200,000 pictures dating from US involvement in World War I while also adding other military medical photographs from the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and the Vietnam War to a database of images. Medical histories published by the U.S. government on the Civil War (6 volumes of "The Medical & Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion"), World War I (15 volumes of "The Army Medical Department in the World War", and the Spanish-American War ("The Use of the Roentgen Ray in the Late War with Spain") will be completely digitized, as well. Within the next year, the Museum and IMC will have created a major digital resource for researchers.

2214579774_5cf6373974_b Michael said to me that part of the reason for this project, besides the historical perspective, was to make images available that simply didn't exist on the Web. They uploaded this picture of a cystoscope as it is used, inserted through the penis and used to view the inside of the urinary bladder. The was some discussion whether this image was appropriate for the Web, but it was decided that it had a special value in being the only image of its kind available that shows this procedure.

Too often we see human anatomy rendered in candy-colored 3D CGI where it seems more the aim to entertain, and grab the eye than to try to represent reality. Considering the range of images available on the Web, I think this image is innocuous.

I mentioned that I hoped that this images wouldn't be seen as just another type of curio for the Web viewer or wallpaper for the jaded. It's important to use these images to discuss medical procedures, as a way on enhancing medical literacy on the Web, rather than just regarding them as quaint.

Shootingsoldiersfigleaf_4 Michael has co-authored a paper, Connor, JTH and M Rhode. "Shooting Soldiers: Civil War Medical Images, Memory, and Identity in America," Invisible Culture 5: Visual Culture and National Identity (Winter 2003),  about the evolution of photographs taken of the wounded during the Civil War. While these photographs were originally taken, collected and studied for scientific purposes, they eventually were shown to the public and became "...iconic symbols of a battle-worn and badly injured American nation."

This image taken 10 years earlier, was displayed at the Centennial Exposition in Philadephia in 1876. The photo shows that  the patient was wearing a real leaf, but in most cases, a leaf was painted on the negative so that each print made would be discreet. This obviously doesn't protect the privacy of the subject, but was necessary to protect to public from the sight of genitalia while war wounds, amputations and other deformities were not considered offensive.

I've been fascinated by the influenza outbreak of 1918 and American society under Woodrow Wilson with his American Protective League having read John M. Barry's The Great Influenza, so I was pleased to see photos and other materials related to this pandemic on their Web site. The press at that time were under severe constraints of censorship against any reports that our troop strength might be compromised by this disease, so photos and stories were supressed. It was called the Spanish Influenza since it was in that country that the press could freely pass along the information it was receiving. This is even though it is widely believed to have originated in Kansas as the US stepped up its involvement in World War I. As the soldiers went off to war, It then swept through North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Brazil and the South Pacific, with mortality estimates as high as 100 million.

This is a photo from Camp Funston, Kansas during the beginning of the outbreak:


This is a segment of a document you can download as a PDF:

Transcript 'History of the Base Hospital', "Camp Mills" Mineola, Long Island, New York. Written by Theda E. Schulte, A.N.C., while on duty during the month of August 1919, between the hours of 1 and 5 A.M. Completed September 15, 1919.

In this passage it mentions toll the virus took on the nursing staff: "Some of the Nurses were stricken; every day our nursing force became smaller."


Some other resources I found out about during my conversation is the University of Copenhagen and its blog Biomedicine on Display, which is about its medical museum. It goes so far as to examine the philosophical and cultural aspect of depiction of the human body and other biological images.

The Wellcome Collection also has images related to medicine and war. They have over 160,000 images online, and they've just changed over to a Creative Commons license.

Please note: In some instances I'm editing and enhancing the images I've downloaded for clarity's sake, since I'm mostly interested in the informational content provided by these wonderful images. For instance, in the first photo of the two nurses, I cropped it and lightened the shadow detail a little to catch more of that smirk on the nurse on the right.


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