Health Museum has 'chamber of horrors' image

January 14, 1992|By Alan Cullison | Alan Cullison,The Hartford Courant

WASHINGTON -- Turn left past the ivory fragments of Abraham Lincoln's skull and visit the "Cabinet of Curiosities," holding a gangrenous foot, a severed head in a jar and a pair of chewed cotton shorts that were found in a shark's stomach.

In a city of hallowed if bloodless monuments, the National Museum of Health and Medicine boasts the autopsy reliquaries of three presidents and numerous sawed-off limbs of war heroes.

Besides exhibits of malformed embryos and swollen, gray organs floating in formaldehyde, there is the severed spine of President James Garfield, who was shot in the back by a demented job seeker; the leg of famed Civil War Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles, smashed by a cannonball in the second day of the battle of Gettysburg; a microscope slide containing a smear of President Ulysses S. Grant's fatal throat cancer.

The museum has gained a reputation as a chamber of horrors among the general public, and tourism has suffered since it was moved in 1968 from the center of the city to its edge, in a drab, block-like 1950s-era bomb shelter.

Today the museum is trying to draw more tourists by changing its reputation -- fewer body parts and more emphasis on its history as a medical research center. The museum has been in the forefront of treatment for war wounds and diseases.

Curators would like one day to move to the mainstream museum district, near the Capitol, but they caution that the museum will always be a little macabre. After all, it's the museum's plenitude of crushed and shot-torn limbs and diseased lengths of intestine, collected by doctors in the field, that helped them cure the diseases.

"We are going through a difficult period of transition," said Dick Levinson, a museum curator and medical history aficionado. "If people want to be titillated by gruesome things, they can come here. But as a museum we have serious responsibilities to educate the public. And that is what we would like to be remembered for. We're not the body shop and freak show that people make us out to be."

Death -- slow death, especially -- has been the museum's benefactor from the beginning. The institute was started after the first year of the Civil War, when it was learned that for every soldier killed in combat in the war, two others were dying of disease or infection. Doctors in the field were ordered to take copious notes on why men were dying, make sketches of wounds and send corpses and limbs back to Washington.

By the next year, 1863, the museum had collected 1,349 specimen body parts. The first ones to arrive at the museum -- two bullet-shattered bones and a spinal fragment -- are on display in a special closet near the Cabinet of Curiosities.

Though their accomplishments may only be known to some, Army medical corps have had a prominent role in advancing medical technologies over the ages. War wounds, because they are so frequent, are treated by trial and error. It was not until the Civil War, for instance, that many surgeons learned how to cut off a leg or reconstruct a shattered bone.

But just where such a museum can flourish in a city of sacrosanct granite monuments is another problem. The museum used to be in a grand brick building near the Smithsonian on the Mall, and nearly 1 million visitors trekked through it each year.

But in 1968 Congress razed the museum as part of a program to beautify America, and built the Hirshhorn Art Museum in its place. Today tourists have a hard time finding the National Museum of Health and Medicine. It has been remanded to a bland concrete annex at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and only about 60,000 visit each year.

Dr. Marc Micozzi, director of the museum, thinks the museum was brushed aside by a society that finds medical problems disgusting.

Television programs like "MASH" and "Doogie Howser, M.D." have made the medical profession appear sanitized, Micozzi said. The museum, which increasingly trumpets its value as an educator on public health issues, emphasizes a different view.

The museum, because of its many collections, has become a treasure trove for Civil War buffs and medical history aficionados. During the Civil War, doctors recorded the name, regiment and hometown of every person whose arm or leg ended up at the museum, and also checked into their well-being after the war.

Ken Burns used some of the museum's photographs to complete his famed public-television documentary on the Civil War, and the museum is regularly visited by people wanting to know more about ancestors who were in the conflict.

The museum was so moving for some that it became a sort of generational bridge for Civil War veterans who could not describe the harrowing experiences of wartime to their children.

"They would bring their families to the museum in the decades after the war and point at the severed limbs and say, 'This is what happened to me,'" Smith said. "Daddy took Mom and the kids there to show them what it was like."

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