Skulls, bones and bullets on display in museum of medical oddities

Tim Clarke Jr., deputy communications director at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Md., stands near a display of facial casts of Civil War combatants taken for surgeons who attempted reconstruction.
Linda Davidson | The Washington Post
Tim Clarke Jr., deputy communications director at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Md., stands near a display of facial casts of Civil War combatants taken for surgeons who attempted reconstruction.
Posted May 22, 2012, at 5:53 a.m.
Medical instruments from a  Confederate surgical kit  are displayed at  the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Md.
Linda Davidson| The Washington Post
Medical instruments from a Confederate surgical kit are displayed at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Md.

The smashed bullet that killed Lt. Henry H. Waite of the 6th Maine regiment is there. So is the one that claimed Pvt. James Bainham of the 125th New York. And the one that killed Abraham Lincoln, president of the United States.

Scores of deformed slugs pulled from the flesh of the Civil War’s victims sit like grimy jewels in these glass cases, not far from trays of splintered bones and punctured skulls damaged in the conflict.

There’s more than war in the Defense Department’s refreshed and relocated National Museum of Health and Medicine, which celebrates its grand reopening in Silver Spring, Md., this week.

The arthritic skeleton of Peter Cluckey sits in its wooden chair, as it has for decades, a macabre but longtime feature of the 150-year-old museum of medical oddities and scientific history.

The right forearm of Confederate Capt. Henry Wirz, which was cut off after his execution for war crimes, is on display in a container of preservative.

And the eerie-looking head and neck of an unidentified man, with the skin peeled away, reveals the tangle of muscle and sinew beneath, like the bundled wiring of an electrical device.

But much of the famous museum is about the impact of war and medicine’s valiant struggle to understand and repair its damage.

The museum had been located for 40 years at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington but moved last year to new quarters adjacent to the Army’s Fort Detrick/Forest Glen Annex in the Washington suburbs.

Tim Clarke Jr., the museum’s deputy director for communications said the museum has 25 million artifacts, including the world’s largest collection of microscopes, a soldier’s notebook that stopped a bullet and a metal breastplate that failed to.

Many more objects are on display than before, and some are probably being seen publicly for the first time, he said.

The Army Medical Museum was founded May 21, 1862, a year into the Civil War, when Surgeon General William A. Hammond directed Union doctors to gather “specimens of morbid anatomy . . . together with projectiles and foreign bodies removed.”

There was no shortage of material.

Surgeons shipped amputated legs, feet and arms, cleanly sawed off at one end, often with bullets embedded in the bone. Specimens were sent in from the battlefields of Antietam, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg.

One became a “perennial favorite,” the museum said. It was the shattered leg of Union Gen. Daniel E. Sickles, who had it sent to the museum in a velvet-lined box after he was wounded by a cannonball at Gettysburg.

After the war, the eccentric Sickles came to the museum to visit his leg annually on the anniversary of its amputation, Clarke said.

Skulls were sent in, too.

One, bearing the awful evidence of a projectile that went in one side and out the other, came from a member of the heroic African American 54th Massachusetts regiment, which was almost wiped out in a battle in 1863.

The museum also gathered the tools of the surgeons who sought to save soldiers’ lives.

There is an array of saws, forceps, mallets, tweezers and scalpels, along with an item called Heine’s chain osteotome. It is a small bone saw with an ivory handle, like an egg beater’s. “It was not widely used,” Clarke said.

One set of instruments, from the time of the War of 1812, looks like a set of farming implements.

In the wake of all the sawing came the need for artificial limbs, and the galleries contain samples of prostheses made of wood, metal and plastic.

One especially grim section details some of the horrific facial injuries suffered in war. A set of large, black-and-white photographs shows a Civil War soldier who lost his chin and the remarkable work that attempted to fix the injury.

Among the museum’s most famous artifacts is the bullet that killed Lincoln, which was recovered during his autopsy in the White House, and several locks of his hair. After the Civil War, the museum was located in Ford’s Theatre, the site of the assassination, for about 20 years, according to Clarke.

Other high-profile items include a vertebra from slain President James A. Garfield with the hole made by the assassin’s bullet, slides of President Ulysses S. Grant’s tumor and the skeleton of one of the first monkeys in space.

Modern times saw the advent of test dummies. One was Chauncy, the General Electric “copper man,” a World War II-era test device that looks like an ancient Greek idol. Chauncy, who smiles faintly from a display case, could be heated or cooled to test military clothing. And then there are the blast-test-dummy legs. They look like a department store stocking display, except for the bullet wounds marked “entrance” and “exit.”

One modern artifact seems especially evocative. It is part of the floor of Trauma Bay II from the tent hospital at the U.S. air base in Balad, Iraq. The surface is gouged from the legs of surgical gurneys and is stained with antiseptic and blood, Clarke said.

It bears a large Roman numeral II marked in duct tape.

“Bay II was known as the place where the worst wounded were brought,” Clarke said, and the place where it was said that “the most American lives were saved or lost since [the war in] Vietnam.”

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National Museum of Health and Medicine, 2460 Linden Lane, Silver Spring, Md. 20910

(301) 319-3300. Admission: Free. nmhm.washingtondc.museum

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