Medical History: Open Source Sites

While I am interested in many aspects of history, I am not an historian. My knowledge of medical history derives from eager exploration, not special training. I have stumbled upon a number of open source reference sites that I’d like to share with you. I’m sure you will enjoy making your own discoveries there.

There are of course some reference sites with vast collections that include medical history items, such as: The Library of CongressThe British Museum or the New York Public Library.

And there are esteemed medical libraries with online holdings, but access is often significantly restricted, such as: The Countway Library at Harvard and the Cushing-Whitney at Yale.

Here, however I will focus our attention on online open source material, as in free access.

National Library of Medicine

This is indeed a treasure trove. You won't have to browse far to get to the historical information. But here are some links to know:
Images from the History of Medicine
Digital Collections
Explore History
And sign up for news on the Exhibitions Program at NLM.

From the NLM

From the NLM

The Medical Heritage Library

Here’s how they describe their site:
“... a digital curation collaborative among some of the world’s leading medical libraries, promotes free and open access to quality historical resources in medicine. Our goal is to provide the means by which readers and scholars across a multitude of disciplines can examine the interrelated nature of medicine and society…. The MHL’s growing collection of digitized medical rare books, pamphlets, journals, and films number in the tens of thousands, with representative works from each of the past six centuries, all of which are available here through the Internet Archive.

The Internet Archive is a nonprofit digital library. Their goal is “universal access to all knowledge.” This is ambitious I know. But consider the fact that they have over 10 million texts available—so far. (They also operate the Wayback Machine—it’s what it sounds like—and have media from NASA to TV news and the cooperation of Google, Harvard, Microsoft and the Library of Congress, etc). 

Medical Heritage Library

Medical Heritage Library

On the Medical Heritage Library site you will find material from prestigious medical libraries in the US and Europe, from military and public agencies and hundreds of private and other content providers. There are over 190,000 items on the site, so make aggressive use of the filters in the left column: Media Type, Topics & Subjects, Collection, Creator and Language. The landing page alone is a visual smorgasbord of images.

 The current ‘project’ is to collect the medical journals of each State. Some of these go back to the late 1800s.

The Wellcome Library/Images/Collection/Trust

These medical archives are integrated within a vast conglomeration of Wellcome’s assets—the Library, The CollectionsImages and Trust.

 In 2007 we opened Wellcome Collection, [in London] the free visitor destination for the incurably curious. Its exhibitions and public events explore the connections between medicine, life and art.

It is no longer affiliated with the Burroughs-Wellcome pharmaceutical company.

Henry Wellcome

Henry Wellcome

Interior with a surgeon attending to a wound in a man's side

Interior with a surgeon attending to a wound in a man's side

We remain true to the vision and values of our founder, Sir Henry Wellcome, a medical entrepreneur, collector and philanthropist. Our work today reflects the amazing breadth of Henry's interests, and his belief that science and research expand knowledge by testing and investigating ideas. Our governance is based on an updated version of his will.

For the Images pages, the clinical portion is restricted to health care professionals. A free and unemcumbered sign up is all that's required.


It is important here to search for “history of medicine”—not “medical history”, which would then land you in the midst of insufferably tedious discussions of how best to waste a physician’s time by turning them into an entry clerk.

Whatever your impression of Wikipedia, make no mistake. If you want to get up to speed on this or that person or concept in the history of medicine, there is no quicker way to gain an overview and a collection of valuable links.


The reliability of the data is for you to assess. But that should be the case with any source material. And, you can always do what I did and sign up for editing privileges.

The two pages that will jump start one’s exploration are:
History of Medicine, and
Timeline of Medicine and Medical Technology

Institutional Histories

We end with a suggestion to explore the web pages of medical schools and companies. I was fortunate to find on the site of my alma mater, The University of Michigan, a detailed history of the medical school and free access to a book on the subject.

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