Visualising Medical History

I have recently been helping to co-ordinate academic input to a relatively new project supported by Jisc that is building innovative tools to help with searching and presenting data from the UK Medical Heritage Library (UKMHL) project. The UKMHL, which is supported  by the Wellcome Library and Internet Archive, is an ambitious initiative to digitise and provide online access to thousands of books on the themes of medicine and healthcare published during the ‘long’ 19th century (until 1914). The books are being made available to the public in a rolling programme from the Wellcome and Internet Archive websites.

mhl blog

Prof. Williams’ Complete Hypnotism

The books are drawn from ten UK research libraries, including King’s College London, and cover a huge variety of subjects including public health and sanitation, infection and epidemiology, nutrition and cookery, the history of disease and its treatment and psychiatry and psychology. Up to 40% of the books were published abroad, notably in the US, Germany and France, and this international dimension provides a fascinating opportunity for comparative study.

Ultimately, the UKMHL will provide access to some 15 million pages of OCR text and millions of embedded terms including the names of people, organisations, geographical locations, diseases, treatments and associated data such as medical equipment, and references to contemporary culture and society which will mean the resource is useful not only to medical historians but a much broader range of interested scholars including biographers, geographers and literary experts.

The visualisation project, which is led by the Knowledge Integration company in association with Gooii, is developing a range of new data visualisation tools such as graphs, timelines and maps. These will enable established scholars, students and other users such as journalists find what they need quickly from a huge corpus of material, whilst also supporting serendipitous browsing and providing the space in which the user can discover completely unexpected facts and relationships, not least between people, places and ideas.

My work involves the design and review of data sets that will help with the selection of presentation of the data, and its contextualisation, and to co-ordinate the contributions of a number of King’s and other medical historians, who are ensuring that the resulting visualisations are both accurate and useful.

The new visualisations will be available to use in summer 2016.

Geoff Browell

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