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At Museum of Health and Medicine, gross anatomy prompts shock and awe
Question of the Day
“This began as a teaching institution,” said Tim Clarke Jr., the museum’s deputy director.“A place to compile and communicate the best practices between military surgeons. Along with specimens, they had to provide detailed case records.”
Best known for displaying both the lead bullet that killed President Abraham Lincoln and skull fragments from his gunshot wound, the museum also features the amputated lower right leg of Union Gen. Daniel Sickles, who annually came to see his lost limb on the anniversary of his surgery.
Sickles, who was wounded by a cannonball blast, once asked museum staff where his foot was.
“They had to tell him, ‘General, the trauma was only to your leg, not your foot,’ ” Mr. Clarke said. “Everything in our collection is here for a medical reason.”
Today, the museum has roughly 25 million objects in its collection, which spans five major categories: anatomy, neurology, human development, documents and medical technology, the latter including Paul Revere’s dental tools.
Home to the largest collection of microscopes in the world - including one used by Robert Hooke, the 17th-century English scientist who coined the term “cell” - the museum also houses the nation’s premier brain collection and is a popular destination for neuroscientists, medical researchers and local students.
The first museum in the country to produce an educational exhibit about AIDS, it more recently staged exhibits about forensic science and battlefield medicine during the Iraq War.
“We have Saturday morning tours,” Ms. Schierkolk said. “They’re free. We have plastinated [preserved] organs you can hold. If you want to feel power, holding a real brain in your hand will give you that.”
One of the museum’s most enduring attractions is the skeleton of Peter Cluckey, an Army soldier who began suffering chronic stiffness and joint pain following a horseback mounted drill in 1904. Over a 20-year period, the joints in Cluckey’s body fused together, leaving him immobile. In his will, he donated his body to the museum; his skeleton has been on display since 1925, seated in a wooden chair, missing only its front teeth.
Near Cluckey’s skeleton is a cross-section of a human lung, removed from a victim of the 1918 flu pandemic. The same display case sports another lung, discolored gray and white: the gray comes from cigarette smoke and tar, the white from lung cancer.
In an adjacent case, a cross-section of a coal miner’s lungs is jet black. By contrast, a cross-section of an iron miner’s lungs is dark red.
Meanwhile, a cross-section of a city dweller’s lungs from the 1950s is colored black and red - a testament to urban air quality (or lack thereof) before widespread environmental regulation.
“As you can see, there isn’t much difference among them,” Ms. Schierkolk said. “You’re living in a city, but you’re still breathing in these pollutants - and they remain in your lungs. We can show what happens to lungs without coal-mining protective equipment. We can show skulls with construction beams in them - and why people wear hard hats for a reason.
“You can actually see how laws and society have changed because of these samples and collections. It’s not just the ‘wow’ factor. It’s what you can learn and change for the good.”
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Patrick Hruby is an award-winning journalist who holds degrees from Georgetown and Northwestern. He also contributes to ESPN.com and The Atlantic Online, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter (@patrick_hruby) and contact him at PatrickHruby.net.
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