When confronted by a 40-pound amputated human scrotum - diseased and distended, roughly the size of a well-fed lapdog, sporting the cracked, leathery texture of an old, weathered football, preserved under glass for easy viewing - many words come to mind.
Shocking. Disgusting. Fascinating. And, of course, “holy @#$@!” But popular? Not so much.
“This is a very popular one with the eighth-grade boys,” said Andrea Schierkolk.
Ms. Schierkolk pointed toward a swollen, amputated leg, also infected with elephantiasis, puffy as a sofa pillow, floating in a large jar beside the case containing the scrotum.
“And this is one of our classics,” she said. “If we didn’t have this out, people would ask for it. They also want to see the human hairball.”
Believe it or not, this is not a 19th-century freak show. Or even modern reality television. And Ms. Schierkolk is hardly a crass carnival barker.
She’s a friendly, helpful public programs managerat the National Museum of Health and Medicine, a lesser-known military museum in Silver Spring.
In a capital region that doubles as a museum mecca - home to everything from the Declaration of Independence to Dorothy’s ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz” - Ms. Scheirkolk’s workplace stands out, containing a collection that’s both educationally unique and uniquely macabre - just the ticket for Halloween weekend.
There’s a skinless human head and neck, dissected with painstaking care, its intricate, layered musculature clearly visible, an anatomical textbook sketch in three dimensions.
There’s the tongue and throat of a choking victim, also preserved under glass, along with a fatally oversized chunk of steak, still lodged in the victim’s trachea.
There’s a “megacolon,” which is even worse than it sounds, a human colon enlarged to the approximate size of a pair of 2-liter soda bottles placed end-to-end, the result of disease-induced inability to void one’s bowels.
All of the above are featured in the museum’s exhibit “Visibly Human: Health and Disease in the Human Body” - as is the aforementioned hairball, big as a child’s forearm, removed from the stomach of a 12-year-old girl who ate her own hair, mostly indigestible by humans, for a six-year period.
“This normally occurs in young girls who have a neurological disorder that compels them to pull out hair and eat it,” Ms. Schierkolk said. “The hairs can become sharp and puncture the bowels.” And now you know.
Located outside the front gate of an Army research facility just off the Beltway, the museum is tasked with promoting medical understanding - a mission that’s sometimes gross, often graphic and always intriguing.
It was founded in 1862, when Surgeon General William Hammond directed Union Army surgeons to collect battlefield “specimens of morbid anatomy” and “projectiles and foreign bodies removed” - read: shattered bones and amputated limbs, plus bullets and shrapnel - for study, the better to treat sick and wounded soldiers.