Abraham Lincoln’s skull fragments drew me to the National Museum of Health and Medicine. James Garfield’s vertebrae were an unexpected bonus. Both presidents fell victim to assassins’ bullets. The bullet that killed Lincoln is on display, along with some small pieces of his skull. Garfield’s vertebrae have a dowel through them, showing the trajectory of the bullet that killed him.
The museum, which moved to its current location in 2011, started out as the Army Medical Museum during the Civil War. A good portion of the exhibits are dedicated to the wounds of war and the doctors who treated them. They had many bones with bullet holes or even with the bullets still lodged within.
Naturally, the various skulls and femurs reminded me of lectures by Body Farm founder Dr. Bill Bass. A broken femur at the museum reminded me of a badly-healed Native American femur that Dr. Bass has shown. Side-by-side displays of normal male and female skulls and pelvises made it easy to see the characteristics that forensic anthropologists use to identify the gender of human remains.
Several of the items on display are not for the faint of stomach. In addition to the bones, they had many types of diseased tissue from just about every organ in the body. One massive jar held the amputated leg of a man suffering from elephantiasis. Another memorable specimen was a hairball successfully removed from a young girl’s stomach. The lungs of a smoker looked as bad as the lungs of a coal miner.
Perhaps the most inspirational item on display was the floor of an Air Force tent hospital from the Iraq war. The exhibit explained that many soldiers’ lives were saved on that spot by the dedicated medical personnel.