- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 27, 2011

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.

“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.

“Everything fused,” Ms. Schierkolk said. “Knees, feet, spine, even his jawbone. They had to pull his teeth so he could be fed through a straw.”

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.”

Formerly located on the National Mall, the museum was once a popular tourist attraction, drawing as many as half a million visitors a year in the 1960s.

In 1971, however, the museum was displaced by the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and moved to a basement location at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where annual attendance fell to about 50,000.

Though the museum moved to its new $12 million building in September, much of its collection remains stored in an off-site warehouse. Items currently not on display include a piece of John Wilkes Booth’s vertebrae, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s gallstones, the skeleton of the first monkey astronaut and the brain of presidential assassin Charles Guiteau, who shot President James Garfield.

To complete its relocation, the museum will close to the public in January before permanently reopening in May. Mr. Clarke said the museum plans to celebrate its 150th anniversary with special events and larger, revamped displays.

One thing that won’t change: a human skeleton that greets visitors in the building’s lobby, under glass and primed for inspection.

Not coincidentally, Ms. Schierkolk wears her work identification card on a black-and-red neck lariat that features a skull motif.

“Once you become immersed in our collections, you take them with you wherever you go,” she said with a laugh.