- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 12, 2004

For more than 100 years, military medical personnel have cared for their own under the harshest of conditions.

These conditions are the focus of the display “Battlefield Surgery 101: From the Civil War to Vietnam,” an exhibit that opened at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in November. The museum, part of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, is located at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the District.

The exhibit highlights the courage of military medical personnel, the danger they face and the changes that have occurred in military medicine — from crude beginnings in the mid-1800s to sophisticated surgical tents in Vietnam.

The current conflict in Iraq — along with the recent focus on World War II veterans at the opening of the new memorial on the Mall — makes the exhibit even more poignant.

“It gives you a pretty good sense of what doctors have to deal with,” says Michael Rhode, chief archivist at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

Highlights of “Battlefield Surgery 101” include a photo timeline of the chain of care. The photos, from World War II, take a wounded soldier from the time of injury through the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) to a field hospital to a stateside military medical center.

Various leg prosthetics, medicines and bandages are on display, as well as instruments and technological advances that no doubt are being used in Iraq today. The role of the helicopter in military medicine is honored in a video.

The goal of the exhibit is to educate, not shock.

“There are not too many pictures of wounded soldiers as we are an all-ages museum,” Mr. Rhode says.

Visitors can go to the “Human Body, Human Being” part of the museum if they want shocking. Displays are divided up by body system (i.e., heart, digestion, skeletal).

The real attraction, though, isn’t to get a textbook look at the human body. The draw is to get a look at yucky stuff one might never see again. Or, in the words of a smiling eighth-grader from San Diego on a class trip here last month: “Dude, this is gross.”

The boy was referring to the leg with elephantiasis suspended in formaldehyde.

Visitors can see the effects of arsenic on the skin, and examples of kidney stones and lungs after a lifetime of smoking.

Two of the biggest gross-outs — and popular sites for the visiting eighth-graders — are the stomach-shaped hairball (recovered from a 12-year-old girl who compulsively ate her hair for six years) and a giant colon (removed from a 19-year-old with a bad constipation problem).

On a more serious note, visitors can see an exhibit on how the body systems of a fetus develop, a vast display on the evolution of the microscope, and fragments of the bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln.

Other items pertaining to Lincoln’s assassination are on display here too, including the bloodstained cuff from the surgeon who performed the autopsy and bone fragments from the president’s skull.

The Civil War is also honored in the “To Bind Up the Nation’s Wounds” display.

This exhibit carries specimens and artifacts chronicling how difficult medicine was during the mid-19th century.

Among the items are panels of crude instruments used in amputations, a model of a horse-drawn ambulance, and models of wounds and how they were treated.


Location: The National Museum of Health and Medicine is at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, 6900 Georgia Ave. NW, Washington.

Directions: From the Beltway, exit at Georgia Avenue and go south. After crossing into the District, Walter Reed Army Medical Center will be on the left.

Hours: The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily except Dec. 25.

Admission: Free.

Parking: Free parking is available in front of the museum.


• Because the museum is on the Walter Reed campus, be prepared to stop at the security gate and show your driver’s license and registration.

• The National Museum of Health and Medicine has two new exhibits: “Battlefield Surgery 101: From the Civil War to Vietnam,” which chronicles advances in surgical care on the front lines; and “Laura Ferguson: The Visible Skeleton Series,” in which artist Laura Ferguson, who has the spinal disease scoliosis, presents 50 paintings based on her own skeleton.

More information: Call 202/782-2200 or visit www.nmhm.washingtondc.museum.

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