The Wellcome Collection is, in its own words, "a destination for the incurably curious". As well as displaying an ever-expanding collection of art and artefacts with medical and anthropological themes, it houses an important academic library and the world's leading archive of biomedical images. The annual Wellcome Image Awards serves to reward the contributors of the most informative and striking images received by the Collection in the foregoing year, with images judged by a panel of scientists, science journalists and picture editors. With its strong focus on deepening the public understanding of science and medicine, each year the Wellcome Collection puts these images on display. The small, but perfectly formed exhibition is fascinating and an insightful treat for all, even if the descriptions were quite technical and arguably assumed some understanding of the underlying scientific concepts.
The 16 images from the 2012 Awards were captured using a range of techniques from simple camera photography to scanning electron micrography, and subject-matters vary from surgery to a close-up of a lavender leaf. Displayed in a blackened room, the images are backlit to highlight every last detail. This is particuarly effective for this year's winning image, a photograph taken by Robert Ludlow of the UCL Institute of Neurology, of part of a brain belonging to an epileptic patient undergoing surgery to fit an intracranial electrode grid, later used to identify specific areas of the brain for removal in a subsequent procedure. We see that the brain is not the grey, jelly-like mass that it is frequently imagined to be, but a pale pink, sturdy-looking organ covered in intricate networks of blood vessels. Incredibly, it captures the brain in its live state, with bright red capillaries and plum-coloured veins criss-crossing the grey matter.
The surgical theme continues with a scanning electron micrograph by Ann Weston, of Cancer Research UK, of connective tissue removed from a human knee during an arthroscopy. It depicts long fibres of collagen, twisted together messily, almost like an electric cable — not the image that the beauty industry likes to put across. Ann Weston also has a second contribution in the exhibition: a false-coloured image of a diatom frustule (in simpler terms, the silica cell wall of a type of phytoplankton), with a pattern bearing an uncanny resemblance to the internationally recognised radioactive hazard symbol.
The relative dullness of a monochrome image, by Peter Demuth, of several spikes in a forest-like arrangement belies one of the most interesting developments in the delivery of vaccines into the human body. Anyone suffering from trypanophobia (of course there's a pseudo-medical name for the fear of needles!) will be delighted to hear that this is not their nadir, but their dream come true, for the spikes are part of a scanning electron micrograph of a tiny, 1cm² patch of biodegradable microneedles able to deliver vaccines to the outer layers of the skin safely and painlessly.
With the exception of one or two, the images are not particularly gruesome. One exception, might be Henry De'Ath's photograph of a team of surgeons parachuting a bovine patch into place to repair a traumatic hole in the heart, but far from causing revulsion, the photograph captures the moment at which the viewer (if not the surgeons) senses that all will be OK with the unfortunate patient.
Some of the images are so striking in their use of colour that they could easily be mistaken for art prints. An abstract-looking print (from the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, MIT), resembling the morning dew, suspended between what could be iron railings comes with a tinge of sadness: the 'dew droplets' are breast cancer cells, and the 'iron railings' channels by which their movement (and spread through the body) may be analysed. The azure blue, almost glittering image by Vincent Pasque (Cambridge University) is of oocytes from an African clawed frog - not at all what I was expecting. Cavanagh and McCarthy's bold, colourful images of caffeine and loperamide crystals are beautiful — though the 'wow' factor is necessarily spoiled by discovering the precise way in which loperamide is used to treat a bad bout of diarrhoea.
This is an exhibition that should appeal to scientists and non-scientists alike. Although it is small, it would not be difficult to spend the best part of an hour soaking up all the information on the experiments, procedures and chemicals behind the splendid images. It left me with even more of the famed 'incurable curiosity' — and with that, I went off to explore the Wellcome Collection's permanent displays.