15 Million Pages of Historic Medical Books to Go Online

The British Army's "Manual for the Medical Staff Corps" (1893) shows how a rifle could easily be made into a splint. (Image credit: Wellcome Trust)

Some 15 million yellowed pages of text and images from arcane 19th-century medical books are about to go digital.

Nine British universities and research institutions are sending their collections of important texts from the history of medicine and science to the London-based Wellcome Library so that their rare books and pamphlets can be made freely available online.

The digitized collection, dubbed the U.K. Medical Heritage Library, will live on the Internet Archive, which already houses digital copies of hundreds of books in the Wellcome Library that were printed between 1800 and 1900. [See Images from 19th Century Medical Texts]

Digital books

Over the next two years, a team from the Internet Archive will scan texts on medicine, consumer health, sport and fitness, and even outdated medical practices like phrenology, a pseudoscience based on the idea that a person's character was reflected in the shape of his or her skull. Texts on food and nutrition will include about 1,400 cookbooks from the University of Leeds, according to the Wellcome Trust, which announced plans for the project in partnership with the digital tech charity Jisc last month.

"By working closely with the partner institutions to build the U.K. Medical Heritage Library, we are converting books into searchable data so that users can explore every aspect of 19th-century medicine and develop new insights into this period of unprecedented medical discovery," Peter Findlay, the digital portfolio manager of Jisc, said in a statement.

Other institutions that are lending their books for the project include University College London, the University of Glasgow, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, King's College London, the University of Bristol, the Royal College of Physicians of London, the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and the Royal College of Surgeons of England.

Cookbooks and stolen corpses

Curious readers and researchers can already peruse thousands of pages of 19th-century texts from the Wellcome Library online. Holly Story, the Wellcome Collection's assistant media officer, told Live Science that two of her favorites were an 1860 edition of "Gray's Anatomy" and the British War Office's "Manual for the Medical Staff Corps," published in 1893.

There is also a copy of "A Poetical Cook-Book," an American text by Maria J. Moss, which features poems alongside recipes for haggis, pickled tongues, and something called "calf's head surprised." The collection includes a fascinating 1824 appeal by Scottish ophthalmologist William Mackenzie to the public and legislators about the necessity of making dead bodies available to anatomy students. And if one needs to be reminded of the deadly demand for cadavers at the time, there is also a book detailing the sensational proceedings of the 1828 murder trial of William Burke and his mistress, Helen McDougal, who were accused of killing several people and selling their bodies to a surgeon who needed corpses for his anatomy lectures.

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Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and Space.com since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.