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Digitizing the Morbid Saga of Human Bones

Introducing Digitised Diseases, a virtual library of 1,600 bone specimens from all over the UK.
Screenshot from the Digitised Diseases viewer showing the right foot of a Chinese woman whose foot had been bound likely from the age of two onwards.

Bones tell stories, but not ones we often get to hear until we break a bone or fall off our bikes. Now, a new website operating out of England wants to share some of those stories based on the bones of people long dead.

Digitised Diseases, as the website is called, is a virtual library of 1,600 bone specimens from all over the United Kingdom. It was developed through a collaboration with England’s University of Bradford and the digital technologies organization Jisc. The website went live yesterday at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, which is home to one of my favorite museums, the Hunterian Museum, which also contributed some items to the collection.


Besides the Hunterian, specimens came from a wide variety of sources—university archives and centuries-old cemeteries—and an even wider variety of time periods. But a common thread is that many of the individuals whose bones are presented suffered from painful diseases: leprosy, rickets, tuberculosis. Forensic scientist Andrew Wilson from the University of Bradford referred to the collection in conversation with The Guardian as having "a grotesque beauty."

Through the use of 3D laser-scanning, CT, and radiography, this assortment of skulls, ribs, vertebrae, and the like take detailed form on your screen. Although the tangible element of observation is obviously out of the question here, the Digitised Diseases viewer lets interested parties otherwise examine specimens as if they were actually in your hand.

Video from Jisc showing a specimen being CT scanned. "The CT image slices used to produce a volumetric model."

Online repositories of this sort are becoming popular in the worlds of museums and academic research. Just last month, the Smithsonian Institution revealed its iteration, the X3D collection, which allows users to not only digitally play with museum treasures, but also 3D print them. Need a copy of Abraham Lincoln’s head or a wooly mammoth skeleton? You got it.

Some of the motivations behind X3D and Digital Diseases are similar. 3D modeling can preserve fragile artifacts virtually as well as document repatriated items so their forms live on for study. But while the emphasis of something like X3D is as much on the public as the professional world of conservation and research, something like Digital Diseases is primarily a tool for those in related fields, like medical historians and archaeologists.

“The opportunity for clinicians, trainee medics, and medical historians to look back in time at archaeological remains in order to aid modern medical understanding will, we hope, prove invaluable,” said Jisc program manager Paola Marchionni.

That doesn’t mean others won’t find this project fascinating. While many of the diseases presented have been eradicated, being given a historical portal on medicine and the human body is nonetheless powerful. We can see how our ancestors lived and died written on their bones and, in the process, gain a deeper respect for medical advancement.