A Gruesome Stroll Through Medical History The National Museum of Health and Medicine in D.C. is not for the squeamish. Founded in 1862, the museum displays everything from a large human hairball to skull fragments from Abraham Lincoln.
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A Gruesome Stroll Through Medical History

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A Gruesome Stroll Through Medical History

A Gruesome Stroll Through Medical History

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Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, is one of the bases slated to be closed. In addition to its most famous role--rehabilitating wounded soldiers--the Walter Reed campus is home to a storied institution, the National Museum of Health and Medicine. It was founded in 1862 to document the effects of war wounds and disease on the human body. The museum has been spared the Pentagon scalpel. Harriet Baskas paid it a visit for this installment of the Hidden Treasures Radio Project.


During the American Civil War, Surgeon General William Hammond ordered medical officers to send interesting specimens from the battlefield to Washington, DC, for research and possible display.

Mr. STEVEN SOLOMON (Spokesman, National Museum of Health and Medicine): They would amputate your legs. And there'd be literally a pile of them, and they would tag them and put them in a barrel and send them to the museum. They'd be in some sort of solution to preserve them.

BASKAS: Museum spokesman Steven Solomon says the museum holds bits and pieces of more than 6,000 Civil War soldiers. They're looked after by Lenore Barbian, assistant curator of anatomical collections.

Ms. LENORE BARBIAN (Assistant Curator of Anatomical Collections, National Museum of Health and Medicine): I take care of the body parts, yes.

BASKAS: The skeletal remains are stored in sealed, pale-blue cabinets. The body parts are next door in the fluid room, where 8,000 glass jars sit on 12-foot-tall shelving.

(Soundbite of cabinet opening)

Ms. BARBIAN: This is intestines right here. This is your larynx area. Hearts are next. Brains--we got two bays' worth of brains, lots of those.

BASKAS: Including at least one infamous brain, that of Charles Guiteau, who shot President James Garfield.

Brian Burrell is the author of "Postcards From the Brain Museum," a book chronicling his worldwide tour of body part collections. There are more than you want to know. Burrell says around the turn of the 20th century, it was common for researchers at medical institutions to collect and study brains for anatomical clues to intelligence and behavior.

Mr. BRIAN BURRELL (Author, "Postcards From the Brain Museum"): Brains of criminals, brains of eminent professors--these sorts of things tended to lose their value as research specimens shortly after they were removed. But they do retain some historical value, like any other artifact. So if you happen to have the brain of a presidential assassin, and that just becomes an object of interest unto itself, then it's kind of hard to justify throwing it away.

BASKAS: At the National Museum of Health and Medicine, every body part has historical significance. Some were saved because of the disease or wound that affected them; others for the medical procedure used to remove them. The museum only has space to display a tiny fraction of its collection, so today only about 30 Civil War-era body parts are on view to help illustrate early medical procedures.

Perhaps the most notable specimens are the amputated leg bones of Union Major General Daniel E. Sickles, who was wounded at Gettysburg. Lenore Barbian says Sickles would visit his leg on the anniversary of its amputation. She also says many less-famous specimens in storage still get callers.

Ms. BARBIAN: People will say, `I'm going to be in Washington. Can I stop by and see great-grandpa's foot, leg, arm,' whatever it is that we have. They can have their picture taken with the specimen, whatever they want to do. But never have any of them ever requested the body part back. Most of them are very proud that their ancestor is basically being commemorated as part of this collection.

BASKAS: But the celebrity body parts hold the most fascination.

(Soundbite of drawer being opened)

BASKAS: Barbian opens a storage drawer she calls the high-profile collection, which includes a specimen jar filled with President Eisenhower's gallstones.

(Soundbite of rattling noise)

Ms. BARBIAN: There's enough of them to think, `Yeah, that must have hurt pretty much.'

BASKAS: There are also body parts from President James Garfield and President Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

Ms. BARBIAN: This is Booth, the cervical vertebrae, and then this is Booth, his spinal cord that's been preserved. And next to him in the drawer is Garfield, and those are the 12 thoracic and the first and second lumbar.

BASKAS: Barbian says when museum curators did a postmortem on President Garfield, the body parts revealed exactly the kind of story the museum was founded to tell.

Ms. BARBIAN: They found that essentially the bullet really had missed all the major organs and his spinal cord. So it's a big debate for medical historians now if the care that Garfield received didn't contribute more to his demise than the bullet did.

BASKAS: While there are close to 25 million items in the collection of the National Museum of Health and Medicine, there are some things that aren't there. Lenore Barbian says that contrary to legend, she's never come across Benito Mussolini's brain or a certain gangster's body part.

Ms. BARBIAN: Well, Dillinger's penis comes up all the time. We don't have it. There is no evidence that it was ever collected.

BASKAS: Barbian says she's heard rumors they have that specimen floating around the back rooms at the Smithsonian Institution, but that's another story. For NPR News, I'm Harriet Baskas.


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