Weird. Quirky. Eeew! Such are the knee-jerk assessments people often make when they hear about the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM). Yes, the exhibitions include a massive human hair ball, a huge elephantiasis leg and diverse organs preserved in formaldehyde. But the 150-year-old museum, just outside Washington, D. C., is in truth an extensive collection of medical artifacts and an impressive educational facility. Even those exhibits that sound creepy are grounded in real science.
Scientific research was the museum founder’s original intent when it was established during the Civil War. “Forward… all specimens of morbid anatomy,” U.S. Army Surgeon General William A. Hammond instructed field doctors in 1862, soliciting contributions to the new Army museum dedicated to the study of military medicine and surgery.
“I have numerous specimens for you,” a Union surgeon replied. “Have put them in ale barrels with some whisky & chlorinated soda.” Bone fragments, pieces of tissue and other specimens from the battlefields poured in along with photos of wounded soldiers and handwritten accounts of case studies and surgical procedures.
As gruesome as the collecting may seem to modern sensibilities, it represented research at its most basic level. Often called the first modern war, the Civil War was fought with technologically advanced weaponry that left young men with horrible new injuries that taxed the ingenuity of field surgeons. More than anything the museum demonstrates how the horrors of war created urgency in the development of medicine. “This is the place death delights to help the living,” a sign on one NMHM wall proclaims.
“It was essentially the first government-sponsored medical research project in the United States,” says Laura Cutter, the museum’s archivist. The battlefield collection became the basis for the six-volume Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, 1861– 65, a government publication detailing tens of thousands of diseases, wounds, and surgeries. Not only was it “highly valuable” to doctors for practical information, Cutter says, but it also statistically documented the occurrence of diseases. Based on the compilation, “the primary cause of military death during the war was diarrhea and dysentery,” she adds.
In addition to housing 25 million artifacts, which include thousands of preserved organs and skeletal specimens, the museum showcases narratives about individuals who made a difference. An exhibition about Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, a surgeon in Union battlefield hospitals, contains her surgical kit, a small leather case about the size of a make-up bag. The Army’s first female surgeon, she was once captured by the Confederates but she returned to the battlefield soon after she was released. She was later awarded the Medal of Honor, the first and only woman to ever receive it. Also on display is the beautifully crafted leather and gold microscope of 17th century scientist Robert Hooke, who used it to observe organisms that he described and illustrated in his book, Micrographica, a revolutionary scientific text at the time. Fascinated by the microscopic images, he coined the biological use of the word “cell.”
A display of prosthetic limbs illustrates the advances made over the years to get war amputees functioning again; a similar display charts the history of facial reconstruction. Though steeped in Civil War history, the museum continues to collect, creating exhibitions of recent military medical innovations. One installation features a section of an emergency room tent used in Iraq. A traumatic brain injury exhibition displays computerized equipment alongside instruments from the 1800s, and a forensics exhibition tracing the evolution of the science so critical to identifying the fallen in battle includes the Sept. 11 tragedy. Over the years, the museum has undergone name changes and numerous relocations. From 1971 to 2011 it was housed in the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which was then located in Washington, D.C. A year ago NMHM moved into its own brand new building in Silver Spring, Maryland. It remains a destination for researchers, but is a favorite of families and, yes, curiosity seekers.