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The medical museum and all its moving (body) parts

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Because of articles about the closing of Walter Reed, an old friend asked if I thought the Medical Museum would also be moved. In the early 1960s (lured by the assurance that a body part of John Dillinger was on display), several of us hopped on an AB&W bus in Alexandria and went into the District. I could have sworn we went to the basement of the Smithsonian Castle, but my friend is adamant that the museum was at Walter Reed. Do you know?

— Kevin Tracy, Alexandria

Your friend is wrong. But so are you. In the early ’60s the famed National Museum of Health and Medicine’s collection had not yet moved to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. And it was never in the Smithsonian Castle, though it was nearby.

Answer Man will explain in a moment, but first journey with him back to the days of the Civil War.

The Civil War was not a good time to be a soldier. It was, however, a great time to be a doctor. There was so much to learn! New weapons were creating new injuries. And new injuries demanded new treatments.

It was to help slake this thirst for knowledge that in 1862 the surgeon general, William Hammond, ordered the establishment of a museum to collect specimens of morbid anatomy from the battlefield. What could a mortar shell do to a shoulder? What could a Minie ball do to a skull? Perhaps the answer could be found if said shoulder and skull were packed up and sent to Washington.

According to a history of the museum written by Robert S. Henry and published in 1964, the trickle of material was slow at first, with overworked battlefield surgeons reluctant to send off specimens. The museum’s first curator, John Hill Brinton, visited battlefields himself, digging in trenches where “many and many a putrid heap” of arms and legs had been buried. Once surgeons saw him doing that, they were convinced of his dedication and started cooperating.

The museum’s first home was the surgeon general’s office in the old Riggs Bank building at the corner of 15th and Pennsylvania avenues NW. It soon moved to 180 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, then to a building owned by W.W. Corcoran on H Street NW between 13th and 14th.

After every major battle of the war, specimens would arrive at the museum. When Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles lost his right leg at Gettysburg, he had it packed in a small coffin-like box and sent to the museum. He used to visit his leg on the anniversary of its amputation.

In 1866, the museum moved to Ford’s Theater, on 10th Street NW. This was fitting, given that there was an exhibit related to the president who had been assassinated at the theater. It included the bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln, along with some of his hair and fragments of his skull.

The museum was more than just a museum. It also housed a medical school for Army doctors and contained pathology specimens that weren’t on display to the lay public. Space was an issue. Alcohol-filled crockery pots of diseased organs routinely piled up.

In 1887, the museum moved to the north side of B Street (now Independence Avenue) SW. The brick-and-terra-cotta building was designed by Adolph Cluss and came to be known as “Old Red Brick.” By then the collection had grown beyond battlefield oddities to include general pathology and medical instruments such as early microscopes.

In 1947, the museum moved across Independence Avenue into Chase Hall, a former Coast Guard barracks. When that was slated for demolition, the collection moved to a building on Jefferson Drive between Sixth and Seventh streets SW. In 1962, it moved back into Old Red Brick.

So there are several places the museum could have been when our reader visited, though Answer Man thinks it was probably Old Red Brick, since Cluss’s design is reminiscent of the Arts and Industries Building, which he also built.

In 1971, the museum moved to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. (The installation’s namesake had been curator of the museum from 1892 to 1903.) With Walter Reed’s closing, the museum moved yet again. It opened its new Silver Spring facility last month.

Only two galleries are open — the rest will open in May 2012, for the museum’s 150th anniversary — but the highlights are there: Gen. Sickles’s leg, the bullet that killed Lincoln, a leg bloated with elephantiasis, a megacolon the size of a suckling pig . . .

What is not there — what was never there — is John Dillinger’s, um, dillinger. That’s an urban myth.

See for yourself at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, 2500 Linden Lane in Silver Spring. It’s open daily 10 to 5:30. For more information, call 301-319-3300 or go to www.nmhm.washingtondc.museum.

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