London’s Pulse opens up the capital’s health records

From smallpox to sun lamps, the health of London and Londoners over 125 years is uncovered with London’s Pulse, an ambitious digitisation project from the Wellcome Library that launches today, supported by Jisc.

The online resource contains more than 5,000 fully searchable reports, from 1848 to 1973, detailing the health of Londoners in intimate detail - borough by borough and often street by street - and written by the people responsible for keeping the city healthy over a period of drastic change.

The site showcases the often-overlooked work of Medical Officers of Health (MOHs), qualified medical practitioners who became influential agents of social and medical reform in the city. Their yearly reports amount to a health check of the capital over more than a century, recording vital statistics on births, deaths and illness, infant mortality, and infectious disease.

The reports also offer an unparalleled insight into Londoners’ lives, covering a dizzying array of topics. They contain details of London’s lost trades (such as hair-merchants and pigeon-fatteners), provide reports on the conditions of child workers in factories and families in slum housing, and trace changing tastes in fast food from oysters to Chinese takeaways.

They record attendance at maternity and child welfare clinics, pints of milk dispensed, and medical statistics on everything from deaths from ague to the number of boils lanced. The MOH reports give a comprehensive account of how and where Londoners, rich and poor, were living, working and dying.

London’s Pulse allows users to navigate this vast collection of data and uncover the stories behind the statistics. Searching by date and region, Londoners can follow the ups and downs of their parish, trace local histories and examine the spread of diseases across the capital.

The text of the reports can also searched so they can be mined for data and cross-referenced, opening up exciting new research possibilities. London’s Pulse brings together reports from the Library’s holdings and those at London Metropolitan Archives. Digitised pages can be read on the Library’s media player, which enables close reading, embedding and free downloading of all pages from the reports.

MOHs were appointed to oversee public health and sanitary officers and report on the health of their borough. London’s first MOH, John Simon, opened his inaugural report in 1849 with the line: “Gentlemen. During the 52 weeks dating from October 1st 1848 to September 29th 1849 there died of the population of the City of London 3,799 persons.” From then on, the health of the nation’s capital was systematically recorded.

In 1855, MOHs were appointed for each borough in London. Their reports carry the idiosyncrasies of their own interests and innovations, from health propaganda ‘cinemotor’ vans in Bermondsey to ice cream proscriptions in Finsbury, but together they make the case that great changes in health could be wrought from simple and monitored improvements in sanitation, diet and housing.

All the reports can be found at wellcomelibrary.org/londons-pulse.

Simon Chaplin, Head of the Wellcome Library, says: “The Medical Officers of Health reports provide a fascinating portrait of London life and the lives of Londoners. The resource helps fulfil the Wellcome Library’s ambition to make our collections freely available and accessible to all.”

Paola Marchionni, digitisation programme manager at Jisc, says: “The Medical Officer of Health reports are a real treasure chest of information, so opening them up for use by researchers and the public is vital if we're to make good use of them. With Jisc funding enabling the reports to be put online, I am quite sure that future researchers will find as yet undiscovered gems within the archives.”

The Wellcome Library has approximately 70,000 MOH reports in its holdings. London’s Pulse is the first step in bringing these resources together so they can be accessed by anyone, anywhere.