Contest Winners Capture the Eerie Beauty of Medical Imagery

This image shows an iris clip, also known as intraocular lens, is fitted into the eye. The clip is a small, thin lens made from silicone or acrylic with plastic side supports to hold it in place. It is fixed to the iris through a tiny surgical incision and can treat cataracts and near-sightedness. (Mark Bartley, Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust)

This image shows an iris clip, also known as intraocular lens, is fitted into the eye. The clip is a small, thin lens made from silicone or acrylic with plastic side supports to hold it in place. It is fixed to the iris through a tiny surgical incision and can treat cataracts and near-sightedness. (Mark Bartley, Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust)

At first glance, Mark Bartley’s image of an iris clip is reminiscent of water pouring through a dam. Yellow and blue waves of the 70-year-old patient’s iris appear to stream through the thinly outlined acrylic implant. Beautiful as it is functional, this tiny piece of plastic is the solution for many patients’ vision woes, bringing the world back into sharp focus.

This image is one of the 22 winners from this year’s Wellcome Image Awards. Now in its 20th year, the contest celebrates striking visuals that “communicate significant aspects of healthcare and biomedical science” chosen by a panel of nine judges made up of medical science experts and science communicators. They were selected from the pool of images submitted to the Wellcome image picture library this past year.

The winning images capture a variety of subject matter, including vessels of a healthy mini-pig eye, the language pathways through the brain and the rainbow of stains used to study the development of placentas from mice. “I think [this year’s winners] will make people think not just about how wonderful the images are but how science works and how, as scientists, we gather data,” Robin Lovell-Badge, a researcher at the Francis Crick Institute and a judge for this year’s contest, says in a video about the awards.

Judges bestowed additional honors on the image of the iris clip, naming it this year's Julie Dorrington Award recipient, which celebrates exceptional photography captured in clinical environments. Taking images of the human eye is no easy task since it is in constant motion. Even more challenging is lighting: The organ's complexity only shines through in the most optimal light conditions. Bartley has great experience in clinical photography, working as the senior medical photographer at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, England since his appointment in 2003.

The overall winner for the contest this year is a digital illustration intended to portray the illustrator Oliver Burston’s personal experience with Crohn’s disease, a chronic disease resulting in inflammation of the digestive tract. The haunting image features Stickman, the alter ego of the illustrator whose skeletal appearance demonstrates the weight loss and frailty the disease can impart.

The winners were presented with awards yesterday during a ceremony at the Wellcome Library headquarters in London. All 22 winning images will be available on the awards website and displayed in 12 different exhibitions located at science centers, museums and galleries, both throughout the UK and internationally.

So take a moment to page through these spectacular images and appreciate the surprisingly beautiful and often unseen inner workings of life.

See rest of the images at Smithsonian.com

InnovationMaya Wei-Haas