Natl. Museum of Health & Medicine

Where anatomy is gross in both senses of the word

August 23, 2012

Admire the National Museum of Health and Medicine’s many specimens of diseased human tissue!

A not-sad consequence of modern medicine is that there are fewer disease-mangled tissue samples for pathologists to study. That’s one reason this museum’s collection is so valuable: Bloated, gnarled legs from elephantiasis victims are hard to come by these days.

The collection got started in 1862, when the surgeon general ordered Army medical officers to send in specimens from Civil War battlefields, and the Department of Defense-run museum’s heritage is evident in the many bullet-pierced bones on view.

A touch screen outside the employees-only tissue library lets you examine hidden treasures such as the bones of Ham, the first chimp in space, and the brain of Charles Guiteau, who assassinated 20th president James Garfield. On the Lincoln front, there’s the bullet that killed him, bone shards from his skull and some other morbid souvenirs. The jars of stuff preserved in fluid — conjoined infants, a foot from a leprosy victim, etc. ­— will ensure you never consider pickling as a hobby again.

Did You Know?

The National Museum of Health and Medicine does not, and never did, possess the manhood of Depression-era gangster John Dillinger. That is an urban legend.

The museum once had in its custody a few bits of Benito Mussolini’s brain; these were returned to the dictator’s widow in 1966 and are said to reside atop his tomb in Italy.

Dr. Mary Walker, whose field surgical kit from the Civil War is on view, was the first woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. That didn’t earn her the respect it should have: An advocate of dress reform, she was arrested several times for wearing men’s clothing.

National Museum of Health and Medicine, 2500 Linden Lane, Silver Spring; free; 301-319-3300.

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