Armed Forces Medical Museum. Free. Open noon to 6 every day except Christmas and New Year's Day. Morning admission and group tours by appointment: 576-2418 or 576-2341). To get there: the main entrance to Walter Reed Army Medical Center is at 6825 16th Street NW. After entering the post, bear left at the circle onto 14th Street to the museum on the corner of 14th and Dahlia streets.
Madame Tussaud's waxworks never could hold a candle to the old Army Medical Museum.Artificial tableaux designed to shock could not compete with real two-headed babies and a man who had to haul his private parts around in a wheelbarrow.
Generations of Washington area kids and weirdo connoisseurs giggled and gagged their way past the long rows of dusty cases, daring one another to look at this . Then in 1974 the museum, which by then had been unified into the Armed Forces Medical Museum and relocated from Independence Avenue to the Walter Reed Hospital grounds, was closed to the public.
Which was a damned shame, because the museum was one of the few windows on reality available to young people in an increasingly plastic world. There they could see disease, deformity and death, straightforwardly presented; could perhaps for once have their natural morbid curiosity sated; and maybe even begin to come to terms with their own mortality. We don't slaughter our own hogs any more, and funeral homes package a "memory picture" of relatives who "pass away." How does Johnny learn that he really has marvelous and treacherous guts inside him, and that the last link in his individual chain of life will be death?
So it is a pleasure to report that the museum again is open to the public.
"We weren't really ready to reopen," said museum director Edward R. White. "It will take at least two years for us to get the place in shape to serve both medical professionals and the public the way we should, but you can always make excuses for putting something off. This museum has had a public education mission since it was founded in 1862, and we just decided to go ahead."
It shows. The displays are eclectic, to say the least, so that one moves from s superb collection of microscopes to a forensic pathology exhibit that leaves out more than it tells. Many of the labels are intelligible only to physiucians, and some of those in lay language tend to confuse rather than inform. Sketchy or absent are the case histories that would give the viewer a sense of the human beings whose remnants have been preserved to caution or instruct us. And a veteran of the old museum will find many treasured exhibits missing.
But Dan Sickles' leg still is there, the one the Civil War general packed up and shipped to the museum after a cannonball took it off at Gettysburg. Viewing it, many a historian must have reflected that if the Confederate gunner had aimed a tad higher and to the right he would have saved the Republic a deal of trouble.
What looks at first glance like a model of a blimp is a "megacolon" removed at autopsy from a singulary unfortunate 19-year-old. It reminds us once and for all that constipation is not something to be taken lightly.
Does a high school kid snicker when the health teacher says syphilis rots the body inside and out? Here are the destroyed genitals, the eroded skulls, the shrunken brains.
There are the genuine Jivaro Indian shrunken heads, the actual mummified girl from Illinois, the no-kidding pickled leg from the guy with elephantiasis (but no the wheelbarrow-trundled organs hereinabovementioned, which are packed away somewhere). Yonder is the "stone baby," the calcified fetus a woman knowingly carried for 55 years. But where are those two-headed babies, and the ones that are all head, or all boby, or mermaid-shaped?
"Oh, they're all still here," White said. "If you don't see something you remember, it's upstairs in the storage area."
Aha! So now even the legendary medical museum is edition reality into something "fit for children"?
"Nope," said White. "All our specimens are available to the Public; anyone over eight is admitted to the upstairs. But we don't have an unlimited budget for guards and display areas, so we do it by appointment. We have high-school tours nearly every morning, and we hope soon to be able to have the upstairs set up as a 'snoop and putter' place, so that visitors can examine whatever they like for as long as they like -- take specimens to a desk, for instance, and really get a chance to absorb them.
"We're not likely ever to be able to afford enough security people to enforce a hands-off policy, and that isn't our policy anyway; we'll just have enough guards to make sure nobody sneaks things out.
"The age limitation is not mental or emotional but physical: A child under eight just doesn't have the strength and motor control to handle these things."
Is he serious? They're actually going to let kids come in and fool around? Does he have a flak jacket? Can you imagine what parents will say?
"We get a fair amount of flak anyway, always have," said White, who is a doctor both of medicine and of law and has adolescent children of his own. "My answer is that there is nothing here but truth. It is not a proper philosophy to hide things."
The museum already employs a number of high-school students part time, and White hopes soon to have many more helping set up displays and assisting visitors. It is plain from watching the way they respond to their ebullient boss that many of those young people will come to share his lifelong passion for science and the healing arts.
The museum has something in the neighborhood of a million specimens, ranging from oddities cut out of casualties at field hospitals to the life collections of eminent pathologists. "We not only have some of the finest examples of rare phenomena, we have in some cases the dozen finest examples of rare phenomena, along with a lot of stuff that is dull, useless, or trash," White said. "The museum has always accepted everything that came in over the transom. We're in the process of sharing out our good duplications, junking the trash and setting up a gatekeeping system that will limit what comes in to what is useful."
The museum is an appendage of the Amed Forces Institute of Pathology, and its primary mission is as always to serve the medical profession. The staff and the unmatched collection are equally useful in consultation on the treatment of a bizarre wound or an exotic disease or in helping sort out a large number of people who have been reduced to small pieces, as in the crash of the two 747s at Tenerife.
But is it any less a service to display fragments of the skull of President Lincoln, and the bullet-pierced neckbones of John Wilkes Booth? No history text, not all the effusions of Carl Sandburg, can make the tragedy as immediate and real as those pitiful shards and the army pathologist's florid and heartbroken but graphic official autopsy report on Lincoln's brain:
The part is lifted from its seat, when suddenly, from out a cruel vent that traverses it from end to end, through these very fingers, there slips a something hard -- slips and falls with a metal's mocking clatter into a basin set beneath. The search is satisfied; a little pellet of lead .
There is also President Garfield's backbone, proof of the existence of which must have confounded his critics; the "scalp of 85 year old Chippewa Indian squaw," which raises questions not only of phrasing but of provenance; part of a log from the great Walter Reed's humble birthplace...
Considering that it is a military medical museum, there are surprisingly few exhibits involving war wounds. One reason is that, in Vietnam no less than at Yorktown, disease has always caused by far the bulk of casualties. Another is that M.A.S.H. surgeons tend to be too busy to save, label, describe and send in outstanding specimens. The main source has always been Stateside military and VA hospitals.
So the war-wound exhibits are fairly proportional. There is the section of overcoat still attached to a shell fragment that passed through a soldier; a surfeit of bullet-pierced hearts and brains; the punji sticks designed by the economical and thoughtful Viet Cong to wound rather than kill, since it takes only one or two soldiers to carry away a comrade's body, while six or seven must lay down their guns to tend a wounded man.
Together they make the Armed Forces Medical Museum a powerful statement against the use of armed force.