National Museum of Health and Medicine

A Gory Way to Learn About Your Health

Visitors can see a Civil War medicine exhibit,
Visitors can see a Civil War medicine exhibit, "To Bind Up the Nation's Wounds," at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Northwest Washington. (National Museum Of Health And Medicine Photos)
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Friday, October 24, 2008

Have you ever played that Halloween game where you're blindfolded and told to stick your hands in bowls that contain eyeballs (peeled grapes), tongues (pickles) and teeth (uncooked popcorn)? It might not be convincing, but the idea -- being close to things that were once inside a person -- is downright creepy.

That is the same shiver-inducing, stomach-churning sensation that one feels while walking through the National Museum of Health and Medicine. In 1862, the museum was established, in the words of Army Surgeon General William Hammond, to be a collection of "all specimens of morbid anatomy, surgical or medical, which may be regarded as valuable."

What Hammond considered to be valuable can be disturbing to those not in the medical field. There are tongues, lungs and countless bones. A brain, complete with spinal cord running down an absent spine, is suspended in fluid.

Although some of the exhibits might be on the grim side and not for the squeamish, this is also a museum about the triumphs of medicine, especially military medicine. From the days of the American Revolution there has been a constant pursuit of making sure soldiers wounded in battle were healed as completely as possible. An exhibit about prosthetics features a leg that two prisoners of war secretly fashioned for a third POW while they were held in a Japanese camp during World War II.

A lot of things can go wrong with our bodies (from gunshot wounds to asphyxiation, they all seem to be included in the exhibits), but after touring the museum it is easy to come away with a better appreciation of everything your body does to keep you going.

Two theaters show films about medicine and health, including the continuously running documentary "Triumph at Carville." It tells the story of how a colony of people with leprosy and the nuns who took care of them were able to overcome social stigmas related to the disease and even develop a treatment.

Besides the movies and graphic medical exhibits, the museum also has other benefits. Want your kid to avoid smoking? An exhibit shows the lungs of a coal miner and iron miner vs. the lung of a smoker. Want them to drink milk to build strong bones? There is an exhibit about brittle bones. Want them to appreciate their bodies more? Have them explore the human body using a computer program, the Visible Human Project.

So skip the pickles this Halloween, and check out the real thing.

-- Amy Orndorff

WHERE IS IT? From the entrance to Walter Reed Army Medical Center at Georgia Avenue and Elder Street NW, take your first right and follow the road to a four-way stop. The museum is to your right in Building 54. Adults should be prepared to show ID at the entrance to the campus and the museum.

WHEN SHOULD I GO? The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Dec. 25. Tours are at 1 p.m. on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month. Special Halloween activities are planned for Saturday.

HOW MUCH? It's free!

WHERE CAN I FIND MORE INFORMATION? Call 202-782-2200 or visit

THE BEST OF THE REST The museum also displays the bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln, a stomach-shaped hairball removed from a young girl and the tongue and throat of a person who choked to death on dentures. The museum also houses the world's largest and most comprehensive collection of microscopes.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company