Medical Artifacts, Old and New, Have Place in National Health Museum

By Sandra Basu

SILVER SPRING, MD — The conflict in Iraq may have recently ended, but it already has a place in military medical history. A piece of concrete floor of an Air Force tent hospital from Balad is on display on the newly-reopened National Museum of Health and Medicine.

NMHM’s new home in Silver Spring. (Courtesy NMHM)

The item is one of 25 million artifacts housed at the museum, which celebrated its 150th anniversary and grand opening in May.

A copper mannequin, nicknamed Chauncey, developed by the Harvard Fatigue Laboratory in Boston and U.S. Army Research Institute for Environmental Medicine in Natick, MA, was used to test new materials such as textiles and body armor. The mannequin is featured in a new exhibit about advances in military medicine now open at the new National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, MD. (Courtesy NMHM)

“More than a collection of artifacts — and there are 25 million such items catalogued here — it is a living collection. Not only does it tell a remarkable story of these artifacts and the people behind them, but the collection is in constant use by scholars across the U.S. and the world to advance the understanding of health and medicine,” James Peake, former VA secretary and a former Army surgeon general, said at the opening ceremony for the museum’s new location.

The NMHM was established during the Civil War as the Army Medical Museum and took on its current name in 1989.

The museum showcases a broad range of objects. Visitors can, for example, view a jungle boot pierced by a spike from the Vietnam War or even a piece of lacework made by a psychiatric patient during therapy in 1917 that features imagined people and animals.

Civil War artifacts such as the amputated leg of Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles and the skull of a soldier from the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry are on display. The bullet that killed President Abraham Lincoln, as well as the probe used to locate it, are at the museum.

Among the new exhibits are relics from more recent wars. The piece of floor from Trauma Bay II from the old Air Force Theater Hospital in Balad is marked with blood and antiseptic stains. It is notable as the place where the most American lives were saved or lost since Vietnam.

The museum relocated to the new building in Silver Spring, MD, in September after more than 30 years at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. The move was prompted by the 2005 Base Closure and Realignment Commission decision, which also closed Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda.

While moving a collection of this size was no small undertaking, the museum managed to continue collecting artifacts as the process was under way.

“Growth is a part of our business. Even as we were undergoing this incredible transition in relocation last year … we were still taking in donations and contributions to the collection,” Timothy Clarke Jr., the museum’s deputy director of communications, told U.S. Medicine.

At the anniversary ceremony, then-Armed Forces Medical Examiner Navy Capt. Craig T. Mallak, said, even with the availability of almost limitless information on the Internet, there is still “something special” about seeing museum artifacts in person.

“It is a unique and special opportunity to be able to come to a place like this and look and gaze upon the history of this country, to look at the death of President Lincoln, the spine of President Garfield and other things they have here,” he said.

View of “Trauma Bay II, Balad, Iraq” exhibit, showcasing the U.S. Air Force’s combat theater hospital at Balad from 2003-2007, featured now on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. (Courtesy NMHM)

For the ribbon-cutting ceremony, officials cut a strand of nerve-regeneration scaffolding developed by the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine. “Also known as bioactive conduits, these biosynthetic products are being tested as platforms for nerve regrowth in servicemembers recovering from nerve damage,” the museum explained.

NMHM is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., including weekends and holidays, except on Dec. 25.

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