Once housed in downtown Washington DC (including a stint in Ford’s Theatre), but now in a new facility in Silver Spring, Maryland, the National Museum of Health and Medicine houses a staggering 24-million medical items, including anatomical and pathological specimens, antique instruments, and important historical medical documents. It features changing public exhibits. One of the more notable groups of anatomical specimens is bone fragments and hair from Lincoln’s skull along with the bullet that ended the president’s life.
We have Lincoln himself to thank for the preservation of these items, along with the rest of the collection at the NMHM. In 1862, Lincoln appointed William Alexander Hammond, a neurologist, to be the 11th Surgeon General of the U.S. Army. The National Museum of Health and Medicine was established that same year under Hammond’s orders. Its mission was to “collect, and to forward to the office of the Surgeon General all specimens of morbid anatomy, surgical or medical, which may be regarded as valuable.”
The collection includes many items from the Civil War, including medical instruments and an unusual human skull from a soldier who was shot across the top of the head, with the skull plate cleaving the bullet in two halves. General Sickles’s leg, which was amputated during the Battle of Gettysburg, supposedly arrived in a coffin-shaped box with a card written, “With the compliments of Major General D.E.S.” It was put on display soon after, and visited by the general for several years on the anniversary of the battle.
The medical items on display in the NMHM includes anatomical and pathological specimens, such as a row of skeletons arranged by height and illustrating different stages of development, a conjoined twin specimen preserved in alcohol, and a Trichobezoar, or human hairball, removed from a 12 year old girl who compulsively ate her hair for six years. The museum also houses antique instruments, and a huge collection of microscopes, notably the one used by Hooke while writing Micrographia, as well as important historical medical documents. There is a special emphasis on military medicine, with representation from the wars of the 20th century.
Keep an eye out at the museum for the off-white mummified head and shoulders of a girl who died naturally in the late 1800s and was embalmed using an arsenic-laced formula illustrating the preservative powers of arsenic.