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Morbid museum fleshes out history

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The Dallas Morning News


WASHINGTON - Alan Hawk, a museum collections manager, turns the key on a big light blue locker, opens a drawer and reveals some of history's treasures: sections of bullet-pierced vertebrae from both President James Garfield and Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Next to them is a little jar containing President Dwight Eisenhower's gallstones. And in a nearby cabinet is the full skeleton of Able, the first monkey sent into space.

The gems are among 25 million artifacts held by the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington. This is no ordinary museum. After all, its newsletter is called Flesh and Bones.

On the campus of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the facility was established in 1862 by Surgeon General William Hammond to collect "specimens of morbid anatomy ... together with projectiles and foreign bodies removed."

Today, the museum and two warehouses hold 5,000 skeletal specimens, 10,000 preserved organs and 12,000 microscopes, surgical instruments and other objects. It's all there to document the history and practice of medicine since the Civil War.

It may seem a bit ghoulish. But this is serious business for the museum staff: "We preserve a very specialized version of American history," said Michael Rhode, chief archivist.

The museum is a gold mine for Civil War buffs.

The Civil War exhibit greets visitors entering a 35,000-square-foot viewing area. It includes a lock of hair and skull fragments from Abraham Lincoln and the leg bone of Civil War Gen. Daniel Sickles lost at Gettysburg.

The museum's Civil War collection draws plenty of inquiries from people wanting to know if they have a bone or other tissue of an ancestor. Sometimes they do.

"Most are proud it is here," Hawk said. "It is a chance to connect with their family history."

And there is the truly macabre. The collection includes the preserved head and torso of an arsenic poisoning victim, the lung of a coal miner and a softball-sized hairball taken from the stomach of a girl obsessed with eating her hair.

"The popular artifacts are a way to hook people and bring them in the door," said public affairs officer Steven Solomon.

Its archives hold clues for historians, investigators and lawyers. Documents include a museum pathologist's observations of President John Kennedy's autopsy. There is a collection of medical catalogs and advertisements, including an 1860s surgical instrument sampler and recent Viagra ads.



What is it: A museum dedicated to unique artifacts important to medical history and research.

What's there: 25 million artifacts, including body parts from 6,000 Civil War soldiers; hearts, brains and bones; and body parts from historical figures; a large collection of microscopes; an early kidney dialysis machine; and a collection of artificial legs.

Who visits: Military personnel, physicians, nurses, paramedics; tourists, students, scholars and Civil War buffs.

Background: Founded in 1862 to document the effects of war wounds and disease. Until the late 1960s, the museum was on Washington's National Mall, although it is not part of the sprawling Smithsonian Institution. The museum is a unit of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.

Resource: For more information, visit



Battlefield medicine: A collection of photos, including some mural size, documents advances in battlefield medicine. In one, Civil War surgeons, unaware of the existence of bacteria, are shown without cap, gown or gloves in an outdoor operating theater. Later photos show gradual improvements as medical teams begin wearing full surgical garb in the 1904 Russo-Japanese War.

Frozen humans: Joseph Paul Jernigan, a 39-year-old Texas convict executed by lethal injection, was one of two bodies - a male and a female - donated for the visible-human project. The bodies were embedded with gelatin, frozen and then cut crosswise into nickel-thick slices and then photographed. The result: A 3-D database of digital images showing the flesh and blood geography of the human body.

Art of life: The museum often features temporary exhibits, including art of the human body. The latest, showing through September, views the body's internal landscape. The images by artist Alexander Tsiaras, using data from the visible-human project, include the human skeleton in motion and cutaways showing anatomically accurate views of organs, blood vessels, muscles and bones.


(c) 2005, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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