February is American Heart Month, the perfect opportunity to visit the National Museum of Health and Medicine at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC. Here you will get a unique perspective. Instead of a candy-filled heart, you can treat your loved one to the view of a real heart preserved with plastic (plastinated). However, the plastinated heart is just the beginning. You know you have entered more than your typical museum as you hear exclamations of “that’s weird”, “that’s bizarre”, and plain old “ewww” coming from all directions. Various displays of bones of all shapes and sizes in various states of repair, disrepair and preservation, examples of every injury imaginable and some you couldn’t imagine, along with an assortment of implements of torture, I mean medicine, really help you appreciate the great progress that has been made in the field of medicine.
The many unusual things you see floating in formaldehyde are reminiscent of a mad scientist's lab. Yet there is a real purpose and method for it being there – to educate and inform. The museum, which was established in 1862, contains nearly 25 million specimens relating to almost anything you wanted to know or never knew you wanted to know about the human body from the inside out. If you have ever wondered what the doctor sees, the “GI Journey” exhibit is the place for you. Here you will find photos taken from an endoscope.
The museum contains several exhibits, including “Cartoonists Take Up Smoking”, which depicts the controversial history of smoking in America from its initial mainstream acceptance to the current warning labels. To end any debate, there are two preserved lungs one healthy and one showing the ill effects of smoking. Another exibit, “From a Single Cell”, features fetal skeletons 4 months in the womb to 5 years after birth. In addition they have numerous jars filled with examples of fetal abnormalities such as cojoined twins. I have to admit that of all the exhibits, this was one that I felt the most squeamish.
The “Blood, Sweat and Saline” exhibit, provides a journey of the progress and problems of war through photographs and memorabilia. It starts with Civil War implements progressing toward the current “C-leg”- computerized prosthetic limbs that actually sense movement. Though technology such as the flack jacket developed during the Korean conflict helps keep soldier’s safer, the need for c-legs reminds us of the grim consequences of war and the gallant sacrifices made by our troops.
For those more interested in the technology and tools of the trade and how it has progressed over the years there are exhibits of over 400 years of microscopes lining the walls, tracing the evolution of this instrument. There are also a multitude of other medical instruments on display from the necessary (fancy x-ray equipment, an iron lung used primarily for polio victims) to the ridiculous (a shoe fluoroscope used to help customers determine the fit of their shoes). Also on display is “Penelope: The World's First Autonomous, Vision-guided, Intelligent, Robotic Surgical Instrument Server”. As the name imples, “Penelope” is a robotical sugical assistant- “she” knows/anticipates the instruments the doctor needs.
Other points of interest include the Lincoln case filled with artifacts from his assassination including the actual bullet that ended his life. Another well-known exhibit is the remains of Major General Daniel E. Sickles' right leg, which he donated to the museum after a 12-pound cannonball hit forced its amputation. History states that he actually visited his leg on the anniversary of its amputation. Lesser-known exibits include the skull of a man with a tiny boo boo on his right eyelid was actually be an entry point for a connoidal ball that unknowingly lodged behind his left eye. Though he only suffered slight headaches, he eventually died a few months later. It was only at this time that the severity of the injury was revealed. There's also the actual kidney stones removed from a private during the Civil War. Nothing seems too personal to put on display.
It is best to take your time as you take your self-guided tour of the museum. You never know what you might miss. The most unusual things seem to be tucked away in cases here and there. Plastinated body parts appear throughout the building – from a carefully preserved bullet wounded hand from World War I to entire reproductive systems. I found myself constantly vacillating from being totally fascinated to totally creeped-out, yet I could not look away.
The museum is also currently featuring a temporary exhibit entitled "Scarred for Life: Mono-Prints of Surgical Scars". Artist Ted Meyer, who himself has battled Gaucher disease, has made several prints of his own scars and those of others, including a kitten whose paw was amputated after a de-clawing. These paintings are accompanied by the stories of how the scar came to be. This exhibit offers the unique perspective of turning something once considered unsightly into a work of art. While viewing the display, visitors are encouraged to write their own personal scar stories to share with others.
Unfortunately, we missed the “Human Body, Human Being” display, which was closed for renovation at the time. It is a unique collection of things human and what can happen when things don’t function as they should. Oddities such as the large hairball removed from the stomach of a 12 year-old girl to a preserved elephantiasis leg we could only see through photographs and postcards offered for sale in the gift shop, which by the time were finished with the other exhibits was more than enough for us to get the general idea. I understand that when the display is active, there are also such things as live leeches and the “opportunity” to touch the inside of a stomach. If this is a “must see” for you, fear not as the exhibit will return shortly. You may want to contact the museum prior to your visit to check the status.
Whether you are looking to be informed, entertained or both, a trip to the National Museum of Health and Medicine is worth the trip. Though it is not among the best known museums in Washington DC, I guarantee it will be the most memorable one you will visit and you just might learn a thing or two while you are there.
Hours: Open Daily from 10:00AM – 5:30PM M-F (except December 25)
Admission: Free self-guided tours (approximately 2 hours). Guided tours are available on the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of each month.
Address: Walter Reed Army Medical Center, 6900 Georgia Ave and Elder St. NW, Washington, DC
PHOTO ID REQUIRED
For more information visit: www.nmhm.washingtondc.museum