Museum of the Medical Macabre Edges Into the Mainstream


First published in the New York Times Science Section – August 6, 2002.

Over its 140 years, the National Museum of Health and Medicine has been a destination for amateur Civil War historians, medical researchers and tourists with a penchant for the macabre. The museum, on the campus of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, still has plenty to satisfy the prurient, but over the last five years it has put away more of its gruesome artifacts and edged further into the museum mainstream. “We have moved with the times, so we have a more contextual approach,”said Dr. Jim Connor, assistant director for collections.

The museum’s displays used to consist of large numbers of similar objects— rows of bones with the same fracture, or jars of brains, each showing the effects of a stroke, or case aftercase of microscopes through the ages. Now, a few specimens are incorporated into bigger-picture exhibits. The current installation of art about orthopedic injuries and healing, for example, includes spines mangled by scoliosis. The change came largely because a growing part of the 75,000 yearly museum visitors work outside of medicine. And they often asked how the specimens got the way they were, said Dr.Adrianne Noe, the museum’s director, prompting her and her staff to strive for greater context in the exhibits and installations. But Dr. Connor said the museum would never abandon some of its moreshocking displays. Those, he said, give the museum “particularity.” And, he added, many visitors come specifically for the graphic reality. “Our audiences aren’t shocked but are actually enthused,” he said.

There are a number of disturbing specimens: a stomach-shaped giant hairball taken from a 12-year-old girl who compulsively ate her hair; a swollen leg floating in a murky formaldehyde bath; a skeleton, sitting in a rocking chair, that belonged to a man whose every bone was fused together by arthritis. Researchers come for the developmental anatomy collection and the neuroanatomical collection, which includes 37,000 normal and diseased brains and human and mammalian brain tissue specimens, among other assorted collections. As part of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, the museum serves three military branches.

It was founded as the Army Medical Museum in 1862, with a mission of studying diseases andinjuries from the Civil War. By the war’s end, the museum had amassed about 2,000 bones, mostly amputated arms and legs. The military surgeons’ notes detailing the damage to each specimen, whether inflicted by lead Mini balls, bayonets, gangrene or cholera, were collected into a six-volume set, “The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion.” It is a quintessential study of battlefield wounds, infections, treatments and outcomes.

One of the museum’s top draws is the shattered leg bone of Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles, a former Tammany Hall politician and famous rogue who is the subject of a recent biography by Thomas Keneally. After being injured at Gettysburg, Sickles sent his leg to the museum in a coffin-shaped box. He visited it each year on the anniversary of its amputation.

After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, at Ford’s Theater, the museum took over the space, occupying it from 1866 to 1887. Army surgeons conducted Lincoln’s autopsy, and they kept skull fragments, hair and the bullet that pierced the president’s brain. All the items remain on display. Out of public view is a section of John Wilkes Booth’s spine, showing the trajectory of the bullet that killed him.

The museum is active in the present, too. Paul Sledzik, curator of the anatomical collections, has weighed in on several modern mysteries, including that of a partly mummified body left on the doorstep of a West Virginia flea market. Mr. Sledzik determined the organs had been preserved with cornstarch,a method popular in the early 20th century. He placed the skeleton in that era and said it probably had been in atraveling freak show, relieving local fears that it was a more recent specimen.

The museum’s display capacity has shrunk drastically since it was moved from its own building on the Mall to Walter Reed in the early 1970’s. Less than 1 percent of the museum’s collections are on display, said Steven Solomon, a museum spokesman. Some specimens — like President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s gallstones and the skeleton of Ham, the first chimpanzee in space — are in back offices. But most of its treasures are kept in a Gaithersburg, Md., warehouse.

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