Who needs the Smithsonian and National Gallery when there’s the Medical Museum?


Skeletons of children from ages 3 months to 5 years show human anatomy at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Md. (John Kelly /The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist October 2, 2013

Thanks to idiot lawmakers, many of Washington’s iconic attractions — the Hope Diamond, the Declaration of Independence, the Ginevra de’ Benci, the giant pandas — are behind locked doors. But don’t despair, megacolon is open for business.

As its name suggests, megacolon is a massive colon, about the size of a Smithfield ham, and with a similar appetizing sheen. It has been a feature of the National Museum of Health and Medicine forever. My mother, when she was growing up in Washington, used to go see megacolon. (This was before cable TV, remember.)

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Back then, the museum was near the Mall. Later, it moved to what was then Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In May of last year, the museum moved into nice new digs in Silver Spring. And while the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art are victims of Republican petulance over Obamacare, this museum is open.

And empty. For most of the time I was there Wednesday, I had the place to myself. Yes, the Capitol is off-limits to tourists, but surely nothing is better at reminding you of the building where our elected representatives work than a big, bloated internal organ that’s full of . . .

Politicians. Don’t let them ruin your vacation. Go to the National Museum of Health and Medicine (www.medicalmuseum.mil).

“The elephantiasis leg remains on display,” said Tim Clarke Jr., who does communications for the museum.

Elephantiasis (elephant? I’m sure there’s a GOP joke in there somewhere) is the massive swelling of the lower organs caused by parasitic worms. The museum’s leg — removed from a 27-year-old man in 1894 — floats in a preserving bath in a huge apothecary jar. If you look closely, you can see wispy leg hairs.

I recommend you don’t look closely.

While it’s true that the museum can be morbid, it’s also fascinating. You cannot call yourself a Washingtonian until you’ve gazed upon the leg of Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles. A 12-pound cannonball shattered it during the Battle of Gettysburg. An army surgeon cut off the mangled limb, and Sickles packed it in a box and sent it off to the newly founded medical museum.

Sickles would visit it every year on the anniversary of the amputation. You can visit it, too: The general’s fleshless tibia and fibula are nicely mounted on a little wooden base.

The museum is overseen by the Defense Department. Apparently it dodged the shutdown because it’s staffed by contractors.

“It was a very well-considered decision, and we’re grateful we’re able to remain open during this period,” Tim said.

Despite the gross-out stuff — brains in bottles, babies in bottles, disquieting plaster casts of battle-related facial traumas — there is a serious purpose to the museum: to explore advances in medical treatment and show how doctors, nurses and researchers have strived to improve the care of injured troops.

One exhibit looks at something that has bedeviled U.S. service personnel in our most recent wars: traumatic brain injury. A brain and spinal column float in a tall cylinder.

“This brain came to us from St. Elizabeths Hospital, so there’s a local connection,” Tim said.

Elsewhere, translucent plastic skulls — created by feeding MRI data into a 3-D printer — show how special, custom prosthetics are fashioned.

Most sobering to me was an object on display in an exhibit on military medicine. It was a piece of floor — not much larger than a Ping-Pong table — that was taken from a U.S. military hospital tent outside of Baghdad. Scuffed, striped with duct tape, marked with the Roman numeral II, this was the operating bay where the most severely injured soldiers were treated. A photo shows it awash in blood.

As I looked at it, my bile rose. What sacrifices were made atop that bit of scarred, plastic flooring? What lives were lost? What lives were saved?

And a few dozen obstinate members of Congress can’t do their jobs?

They need some brains. I know where they can get some.

The museum is at 2500 Linden Lane, Silver Spring, and is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily.

Gospel according to Paul

Stephen A. Klatsky’s job isn’t affected by the current shutdown. He’s retired. But he was furloughed during the last one. Now he volunteers at the National Gallery of Art and two Smithsonian museums. Or he used to, before they closed.

“I have lots of time on my hands,” he said.

And so, with apologies to Paul Simon’s “59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” Stephen wrote “14th Street Bridge Song, or Feelin’ Shut Down”:

Shut down, you moved too fast.

Didn’t make those dollars last.

Just kickin’ round the middle class,

Makin’ us choke on your banal bombast.

Hello Congress, what ya knowin’?

I’ve come to laugh at what you’re throwin’

Ain’t you got no jobs for me?

Doot-in’ doo-doo

Feelin’ shut down.

Congress don’t got no deeds to do,

No promises to keep.

They’re stupid and careless and always asleep.

Let them feel the seething anger of the citizen creep.

Congress, I love you,

Feelin’ shut down.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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