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Last Updated: Monday, 6 October, 2003, 23:14 GMT 00:14 UK
Vast digital health archive opens
Picture courtesy of Mary Evans Picture Library
Patient being put under anaesthetic before an operation (1888)
A project to store digitally every single issue of one of the world's greatest medical journals has been completed.

The pages of The Lancet, founded in 1823, and published weekly ever since, have carried reports of many of the greatest medical triumphs of the past 180 years.

A two-year project to digitally capture each page - a total of 340,000 articles - and convert them into a fully searchable database, will be a boon both to medical researchers and medical historians.

Previously it was extremely difficult to locate articles, often involving lengthy trawling through fragile volumes, with only a few locations having a complete set.

The Lancet's history
First published October 1823
First reports on transfusions, antiseptics, HIV
Campaigns on hospital hygiene, safety

People will still have to pay to access the electronic version, and it is likely to be available in major reference libraries at universities and in cities rather than affordable by private individuals.

The Lancet was founded in 1823 by Thomas Wakley as a radical campaigning publication against what he saw as corruption in the medical establishment.

Many of the themes of its early contents are eerily reminiscent of those which still dog the UK health service from time to time - bungled operations and hospital hygiene among them.

It also carried the first reports on blood transfusion, the remarkable impact of antibiotics, antiseptics, as well as some of the first revelations on modern killers such as HIV/Aids, and Hepatitis C, remaining one of the most important medical journals in the world.

Current Lancet editor Richard Horton said: "Thomas Wakley and his successors have aimed to combine publication of the best medical science in the world with a zeal to counter the forces that undermine the values of medicine, be they political, social, or commercial.

"The history of these twin traditions is, for the first time, now available to a wide audience through this complete electronic archive.

Scanning process
Each volume was painstakingly scanned
"It is a marvellously inspiring chronicle, one that will encourage every reader to celebrate the unique contribution medicine makes to society."

Medical historian Dr Ruth Richardson told BBC News Online that the Lancet had influenced some of the most important changes in medical practice in the last two centuries.

She said: "Medical researchers can still learn much from early editions of the Lancet - more than anything, it shows that we haven't actually come very far.

"Many of the debates are very much the same as they were then, and we are still in the dark about many diseases.

"These volumes are a treasure trove."


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