“All specimens of morbid anatomy.”
For more than 150 years, the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland, has collected objects of a peculiar medical nature.
This collection began during the Civil War. Just like today’s medical personnel, nineteenth-century doctors were eager for any new knowledge that could improve how they cared for and treated patients. And so the US Army Surgeon General issued a directive to gather “all specimens of morbid anatomy” from the war’s battlegrounds so that they would be preserved for future study.
The National Museum of Health and Medicine–then called the Army Medical Museum–was established with the mission to acquire photographs, anatomical specimens, bullet fragments, and other objects related to wounded soldiers that might prove educational to medical professionals.
The NMHM has continued this mission for the last 150 years, with today’s collection containing more than 24 million objects that range from human remains to antique prosthetics. The vast majority of these holdings are open only to researchers, but regular folk still have the opportunity to view and learn about some of the museum’s most-important objects.
I will warn you, visiting the museum is not for the faint of heart. There are dozens and dozens of jars with body parts floating inside. One case contains the skeletons of real children. There are diseased lungs, and brains, and limbs.
But these specimens are not there for shock value. Beyond appealing to a certain macabre fascination, such exhibits educate visitors on the body’s different structures and teach about what happens when those structures become abnormal. Before we can treat disease, we have to first understand what it is doing to the body.
And the museum is also not all human remains, which I’ll admit I personally shied away from. There are immense holdings of historical medical objects, from a seventeenth-century microscope to early prosthetic limbs.
The Civil War exhibit was particularly illuminating.
A ship model taught me that watercraft were used as floating hospitals during the Civil War–obviously the wounded soldiers had to be moved off of the battlefields, but it never occurred to me that giant steamships floating down the Mississippi were the method of such removal.
There are rows of what I at first thought were snail shells but turned out to be bullets, their sheer size giving me a greater appreciation for the trauma experienced by the soldiers they wounded.
And another piece of ammunition literally dropped my jaw: the bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln.
Although there are sections where you may need to advert your eyes, the NMHM is a fascinating place. It yields some surprising facts–like the sophisticated technique of eighteenth-century facial reconstruction–and offers hope that we will be able to combat diseases of the future.
It’s a bit morbid, yes. That said, anyone with even the slightest interest in health, medicine, or history should make the trek. Just maybe don’t bring the kids.
If You Go
The National Museum of Health and Medicine is located at 2500 Linden Lane in Silver Spring, Maryland, just north of Washington, DC. Parking is free, and it is also just one mile from the Forest Glen Metro Station (Red Line).
The NMHM is free and open every day but Christmas. Hours are 10AM-5:30PM. Flash photography is not permitted (hence the deplorable state of the above photographs).