The National Museum of Health and Medicine
It’s not large like Mount Rushmore, iconic like the Statue of Liberty, or symbolic like The White House. It’s small and virtually hidden from view. Most locals don’t know it still exists and most tourists wouldn’t know where to find it… even if they knew to look for it.
Yet it was right at the centre of one of America’s most famous events.
I stumbled on it by accident – which is, I assume, how most people must find it. I had gone to a museum in Silver Springs, Maryland, near Washington DC, not for any particular reason except that the title offered the potential of some interesting discoveries. The National Museum of Health and Medicine. With a name like that it could have been full of boring scientific exhibits but thankfully there was much more to it than that… including America’s hidden history.
I was the only person at the museum that afternoon. To be fair, it was a sunny summer weekday so those who weren’t at work probably had better things to be doing than visiting a medical museum. But even with the warm rays streaming in through the windows, it was eerie to be alone.
Behind the glass cabinets were specimens of the human body. Slices of brain, skulls with vertebrae still attached, diseased organs. The museum has evolved over the years but its origin was in military medical cases, so many of the specimens showed the trauma of war. Bullets to the head, amputations from a time before anaesthesia, and (from more recently) the concrete slab from a Baghdad airbase that was the first stop for wounded soldiers.
I wandered into one room that housed items from research once done into human deformities. Conjoined twins floated in a jar next to an enlarged intestine and a leg swollen with elephantiasis. It could have been a carnival freak show if it hadn’t been surrounded by such scientific descriptions and explanations. Uneasy, I moved into the final room in the museum.
It was in here that I discovered the highlight of the visit. Oddly, it was tucked away in a corner with no overt signals previewing what I was about to see. There were no windows nearby and this part of the room was quite dark. I walked towards the exhibit and as I got closer became intrigued by the title about the glass cabinet. I looked in, saw it, and had to read the description twice to make sure I had understood it correctly.
It was the bullet that had killed Abraham Lincoln.
Artifacts of Lincoln’s assassination
When the president was shot that April day in 1865, he was taken to an army hospital where, after his death, the doctor performed an autopsy. Here, in this innocuous glass cabinet, were the mementos of that day.
There were hair and bone fragments from Abraham Lincoln’s skull, part of the surgeon’s shirt stained with the President’s blood, and medical documents relating to his treatment and death. And, of course, that bullet. The tiny bit of metal, encased in glass and mounted in wood, might not look like much today but it rattled a nation and, in some respects, the world. John Wilkes Booth had once held it in his hand, placed it into a gun, carried it to the theatre, and, for the first time in history, assassinated an American President with it.
It felt strange that such an important part of the country’s history seemed to be hidden away. True, to look at, it’s not much. But what it represents is a crucial time in the evolution of the United States. The museum seemed to have several items of importance that it just casually placed on display without much fanfare – a part of President James A Garfield’s spine (the 12th thoracic, 1st and 2nd lumbar vertebrae, to be exact), and the skeleton of Able, the monkey who survived a trip into space in 1959.
Maybe the point is not to make a big deal about it all, to just present these items for those who are in the know and would like to study them. Perhaps it would be distasteful to put more effort into the promotion and marketing of body parts and instruments of death? Or perhaps it’s all about the surprise – those visitors who make the effort to stop at the museum are supposed to be rewarded for their commitment? If the latter is the case (and it’s probably giving someone too much credit to assume it’s intentional), then it worked on me.
* You can visit the official site of the National Museum of Health and Medicine here.
To get an update on the next Time Travel Turtle story, click on the LIKE button below: