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Photos by Karen Hamlin and Michel Istaphanous

Washington DC: National Museum of Health & Medicine -- Medical Museum at Walter Reed Hospital

This little known museum is also known as “the weird museum,” so I was naturally attracted to it. And weird, it is. It received one of its first donations during the Civil War from Major General Daniel E. Sickles, the 3rd Army Corps commander. Sickles’ leg was shattered by a 12-pound cannon ball at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, requiring amputation. Sickles donated his leg to the museum in a coffin-shaped box with a card that read: “With the compliments of Major General D.E.S.”

Each year, on the anniversary of his amputation, Sickles would pay a visit to the museum to see his leg and even brought friends and relatives to view it.

Artifacts surrounding the death of President Abraham Lincoln are also on display including the bullet that killed him, bone fragments from his skull, hair, and his bloodstained shirt cuff. The museum’s medical illustrator sketched a pencil drawing of the deathbed scene soon after Lincoln died.

Then I saw some really weird things that, no matter how repulsive, capture your shock absorbers. One such example is the environmental and toxicological effects of arsenic. According to Jim Connor, Ph.D and the museum’s assistant director for collections, "Some victims of arsenic poisoning were deliberately murdered, while for others its ingestion or inhalation was purely accidental."

More strange stuff can be found in the exhibit Human Body, Human Being where I could have touched the inside of a preserved stomach. Thanks, but no thanks. There were live leeches on display, real kidney stones, a hairball from a 12-year old girl’s stomach and all sorts of specimens suspended in formaldehyde. It was like being in the lab of Dr. Frankenstein.

Moving to the next exhibit, “Battlefield Surgery” presents the evolution of the military operating room and surgical practices over the last 140 years on the battlefield. Rare photos from the Civil War depict the advances in medical care and transport through the Vietnam War.

This museum is filled with displays that can make you cringe as much as it makes you appreciate modern medicine. Either way, it is a fascinating, secret little gem.

If you go:
National Museum of Health and Medicine
Walter Reed Army Medical Center
6900 Georgia Avenue and Elder St., NW
Building 54
Washington D.C. 20306
For more information call 202-782-2200


Karen Award winning journalist, Karen Hamlin is a native New Englander who moved south to Florida and now lives near Washington DC. Karen specializes in dropping into new situations and taking the reader along for the ride. First prize winner of the 2003 and 2004 North American Travel Journalists Association competition, Karen's peripatetic travels have taken her through most of Europe, the Caribbean, the South Pacific, China and the Middle East. Karen is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association, International Travel Writers Alliance, and Washington Independent Writers. Now a veteran world traveler, she writes for national and regional magazines.
Photos by Karen Hamlin and Michel Istaphanous
© 2008