On one shelf rests a giant hair ball that filled the stomach of a 12-year-old girl who compulsively chewed her hair. Floating in a nearby glass container is a young manâ€™s leg that ballooned in size because of elephantiasis.
This isnâ€™t a carnival freak show. The specimens are among thousands of medical odditiesâ€”many ghoulishâ€”collected by the National Museum of Health and Medicine, which is dedicated to tracing the history and practice of medicine over the centuries.
But the museum, located on the 113-acre campus of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, likely will have to find a new home. Last summer, the Base Closure and Realignment Commission voted to close the hospital and move many of its medical services to suburban Bethesda, Md., by 2011.
The commission does not indicate what will happen to the museum, other than to say it will not be â€œdisestablished.â€ Museum officials are also uncertain, though itâ€™s expected to move with the hospital to Bethesda.
It would be the museumâ€™s 10th move since its founding in 1862 as the Army Medical Museum. The surgeon general originally wanted medical officers to collect specimens from dead and wounded soldiers on Civil War battlefields so that their diseases and injuries could be studied.
I’ve been to DC a few times and I never visited. Had I but known…
…the bullet that killed President Lincoln at Fordâ€™s Theatre also is displayed, as are bone fragments and hair from the presidentâ€™s skull and the bloodstained shirt of a doctor who assisted in the autopsy.
Sarah Vowell, in her book Assassination Vacation, describes a visit to this particular exhibit. I knew I had heard of this place somewhere… The book itself is actually pretty entertaining. Vowell is a self-described “McSweeny’s person”, so I was fully prepared to scoff frequently and eventually lay the book aside. She held me until the end, though, and the only negative memories I have of the book involve her frequent references to just how weird she is. But I digress.
Apparently the museum isn’t a big draw:
Up to 60,000 people visit the museum each year, and many others participate in outreach programs and log on to its Web site, spokesman Steven Solomon said. Before moving to Walter Reed in 1971 â€” about five miles from downtown â€” the museum was on the National Mall where it drew 765,000 people in its final year.
The casual tourists are now gone, but scholars, military service members, doctors, Civil War buffs and school groups are among those who still seek out the museum. â€œThis is definitely a destination attraction,â€ Solomon said.
I’m willing to bet that the move won’t help the museum’s annual draw.