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Embodying the Best Bits

January 17, 1988|NINO LO BELLO | Lo Bello is an author and free-lance writer living in Vienna. and

WASHINGTON — Limping from one display case to another, a retired Army colonel suddenly comes to a stop in front of a display and excitedly calls to his wife: "Hey, hon, I found it! Here it is--my foot! And look how they've got it displayed."

That's not the kind of talk you ordinarily hear in a museum, but then it happened in the world's most unusual museum--the Medical Museum of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.

It houses a collection of body parts. Admission is free. Open every day of the year (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, 6825 16th St. N.W., the museum is a touristic exclamation point. It houses an array of anatomical curiosities from VIPs in America's history. Abraham Lincoln, for instance.

The Bullet and More

The exhibit on Lincoln's assassination commands the attention of the 500,000 visitors a year. The showcase displays some of Lincoln's head hair cut from around the wound made by John Wilkes Booth's bullet; a splinter from Lincoln's skull, found on the surgical instrument used during the autopsy; two shirt-sleeve cuffs stained with the blood of the 16th President; six additional small pieces of bone from his skull, and the bullet that killed him.

Though not part of the Lincoln showcase, another cabinet shows a section of Booth's vertebrae, complete with bullet hole. Then there is a segment of President James Garfield's spine that has a plastic rod in it tracing the path of the bullet that killed him. There also is a slide of President Ulysses S. Grant's throat cancer.

It's no small wonder that visitors invariably tell the guards or the desk personnel that "This is the most interesting place I have ever seen" or "It was an experience we can never forget." The letters that come in are full of similar declarations.

A Hope of Saving Lives

Founded during the Civil War by Surgeon General William A. Hammond, the museum gives people a chance to explore the mysteries of the human body.

Dr. Hammond didn't start the museum for a lay public, but rather in the belief that the excessive loss of life and limbs from war wounds could be minimized by creating a central organization devoted to their study.

Accordingly, he ordered medical officers to collect and send in all surgical and medical specimens that could prove of value. As the collection grew it was put on display. No one had expected such a big success.

One frequent visitor was Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles. At Gettysburg, Pa., in July, 1863, after his leg had been crushed by a 12-pound cannonball, he packed a makeshift box with the shattered limb that had been removed at the thigh.

In later years he would frequently visit the medical museum "to look at my drumstick," as he liked to call it. Often he would joke about it with other visitors.

But most of the exhibits are not from military encounters. The purpose of the museum is to serve as a pathological collection for students, teachers, biologists and MDs and as an educational exhibit for the public.

The eye-arresting showcases do run a rather fantastic range, including the skeletons of the Lyon quintuplets (all of whom died within 14 days after birth), a fetus with its legs fused (giving the appearance of a real mermaid) and a one-eyed baby.

Buried in Whiskey

One outstanding exhibit that "got away" was the nephritic kidney of John Paul Jones, the naval hero. After his death, Commodore Jones was buried in a lead container filled with whiskey.

When museum officials came upon the autopsy report that showed that Jones' kidney had been removed for study, they tried to get the kidney from France. Investigation led to the dismaying news that the tissues of the famed sea fighter's diseased organ had ben inadvertently thrown out as "refuse" by a janitor.

The museum has more than 400,000 items. About half of the cases, which often undergo changes, are devoted to current topics such as smoking, drug abuse, air pollution, food poisoning, automobile accidents, scuba diving effects and such enemies of mankind as cancer, heart disease and AIDS.

Because of such presentations, medical school and biology professors bring their students on field trips to look at the real thing.

Not long ago one such teacher--who limped a little--came to the museum with his class and explained that he was inspired to become a biologist after his parents brought him to the museum as a child.

"When I was a patient in an Army hospital, every time they operated on me they'd quickly pop the pieces into a jar and hustle them off to this museum," he said.

So now teacher lectures about himself in front of an exhibit with parts of himself in it. "And you can be sure that this is one lesson my students never forget."

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