Index of Medieval Medical Images (IMMI) - Description of the Original Project
In 1988, the IMMI project began its work. Its mission: to describe and index the content of all medieval manuscript images (up to the year 1500) with medical components presently held in North American collections.
An eminent and learned art historian once commented on the "sparse" and monotonous nature of medical illustration in the Middle Ages. Indeed, compared to the sumptuous miniature pictures which we can find in famous Books of Hours, or the richly detailed scenes depicted in church frescoes are not often overwhelming as pieces of visual design or craftsmanship. Compared to the printed scientific illustrations of Weiditz, Vesalius, and their successors in the sixteenth century and later, these individual drawings and paintings could not reflect strict standards of uniformity and accuracy.
By the same token however, because of their scarcity, the information provided by each illustration is even more precious. Each image, or other visual aid offers some small insight toward the understanding of traditional medical doctrine, and occasionally of local variations. On the other hand, richly detailed religious paintings are not entirely lacking in medical content. Depictions of bandages, crutches, lesions and wounds in devotional illuminations can display interpretations of orthopedics, traumatic care or skin disease. The compilers of IMMI strove to include as many of these medically-relevant devotional images as possible.
The initial survey of medieval medical images, world-wide in scope, was undertaken by Loren MacKinney over thirty years ago. His work provides a fairly complete checklist of the relevant medical manuscripts around the world, and sketches the nature of the contents of each, with a few notices of particular illustrations on specific leaves.
The IMMI project (The Index of Medieval Medical Images in North America, a Library Resource Project funded by the United States National Library of Medicine Grant# LM-04868, and by the Ahmanson Foundation) undertook to build upon the late Professor MacKinney's work, compiling an image-by-image census of all the relevant items held in North American manuscript collections.
Indexing terms for the computer-assisted census were drawn as far as possible from standard library sources. We have created local search terms for genres and forms of images as well as for subjects not adequately covered in the standard source lists. The genre terms include specifically medieval genres such as "Herbal Illustrations," and the subject terms characteristic medical activities of the time such as leech-gathering and uroscopy.
The entries in the IMMI database are tagged in MARC (MAchine Readable Cataloging) format. MARC format is known by thousands of users througout the world, who will be able to take full advantage of IMMI as a reference tool. Our work with MARC at the level of the PC was facilitated by relatively "user-friendly" software that has been developed recently.
IMMI entries contain note fields with short transcriptions of the most relevant text. These transcriptions help users deal with some pecularities of medieval manuscript illustrations, such as:
- Captions are almost never applied in a consistent manner to illustrations
- Chapter headings often serve double duty as captions
- Many images are only explained in adjacent text. Some in text several lines before or after, or a page or more away
- Captions and chapters often fail to appear in a given manuscript, and thus disrupt any numbering system
In sum, our text transcriptions constitute a guide to the logic of our "reading" of the image. Users may find such guidance especially welcome since the difficulties for the modern reader are not limited to those listed above. Chapter headings in medieval treatises are often numbered, sometimes in simple (and to the modern mind congenial) consecutive series as in herbals, but more often in an elaborate hierarchy of subdivisions with a rationale sometimes obvious but often quite elusive. The transcriptions anchor the images to particular lines of text.
The descriptive field  for each entry will include an informal note on "adjacent text." "Text" in this usage means a complete textual work, as, for example, Aristotle's De anima or Guy de Chauliac's Chirurgia. We have indexed each image with a controlled version of the name of the author or title of each "adjacent text." Thus, a researcher will be able to assemble records for all the images used in conjunction with a particular work appearing in several different manuscripts.
The bibliography field uses the names of the authors and titles drawn when possible from OCLC authority lists. When works are anonymous or little known, the names follow the local identification of the text, or the standard census of manuscripts.
Many medieval terms, while fairly recognizable, are not identical to modern medical categories. In medieval times leprosy could refer to a number of skin problems, and perhaps only rarely to the disease as defined in the modern world.
Medicinal plants present a spectrum of such difficulties. Medieval names may incorporate many modern species. Generally, however, even when species and genus are in dispute, the plant family can be ascertained with reasonable certainty, allowing the use of plant family names as subject terms. Images of "Camomilla," for example, can be found by searching the subject term "Compositae." When a name appears in the original as a caption or conspicuous chapter heading, it has been designated as the image's "title," recorded in the title field [coded in MARC as 245]. Many medieval plant names may searched in the title field. Some appear in note fields [500 or 520], where other archaic terms, such as those for surgical and cautery instruments, may also be found.
Dr. Ynez V. O'Neill and Dr. Mark Infusino of the Medical History Division of the
David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA were respectively the Principal Investigator and the Project Coordinator and have
continued the project to this day. Dr. Sara Shatford Layne, UCLA Library, was the Cataloging Consultant and she too continues to participate.