Weird stuff in jars! Nichole Visits The National Museum of Health and Medicine

A couple of weeks ago, PoP asked some of us contributors if one of us could hit up the National Museum of Health and Medicine on the Walter Reed Campus. Even though this is very much west of North Cap, I jumped at the opportunity – not just because I’ve got my days free, but also because I love creepy stuff in jars of formaldehyde. I’ll warn you now: some of the pictures are probably not for the faint of heart. Also, flash photography was prohibited, so the quality of the photos isn’t great.

First things first: Holy crap did I get lost on the campus. I drove in and showed ID and registered and told the guards I was going to the museum and even asked them how to get there (after I’d studied the map online). It took me 15-20 minutes (and asking directions twice more) to finally find it. Parking was convenient, but if you’re nearby, I’m guessing it’s much easier to get to on foot.

Once inside, I knew my feeling had been correct. There were all kinds of things in jars and Civil War era surgical kits, and skulls and femurs (some damaged by cannonball fire) and I realized that there would be no way to subdue my giddiness.

I decided to hit what I figured were going to be the more boring parts first: namely, the exhibit chronicling the history of the microscope. I have no pictures of this b/c the ones I took of Hooke’s microscope ended up really blurry, and frankly I was in a hurry to get to the good stuff.

Then I checked out the temporary exhibit on forensics, which was better namely because of the skulls. I definitely do not want to go head to head (so to speak) with a ball peen hammer anytime soon.


Story and lots more photos continues after the jump. Warning not for the feint of heart!

Then it was onto the Triumph at Carville which tells the story of Hansen’s Disease and a refuge for its sufferers in Louisiana. I had no idea what Hansen’s was, but wasn’t disappointed when I found out it was leprosy. The exhibit was more about the community fostered at Carville (which is actually a pretty neat story) than about detailing the ravages of the disease, though there was an amputated leprotic leg in a jar. (It was pretty dark so no pictures.)

I went on to look at Civil War surgical techniques (I’ll pass, thanks – if the gunshots or cannonballs didn’t get you, the gangrene was more than happy to pick up the slack) and the Battlefield Surgery 101 exhibit. The morbidly coolest part was that they have the bullet that killed Lincoln on display. My picture isn’t so good, but here it is:

Lincoln's Bullet

I quickly wandered over to check out medical implements throughout time (not the exhibit’s real name, but I can’t remember which it was) where I saw the major advancements in specula over the years. I was suddenly very, very happy to be a woman living in the 21st Century as opposed to during the Roman Empire.

Next up was Epidemic Hemorrhagic Fever during the Korean War at the Blood, Sweat and Saline exhibit. The exhibit looks at combat medicine during the Korean Conflict, but I was more interested in the organs harvested from soldiers suffering from Hemorrhagic Fever, which ravaged US troops. (I know, I know – I recognize that it’s a sick fascination)

Hemorrhagic Organs

I breezed past the Medical Diagnostic and Treatment Technology of yore, interested to finally see what an Iron Lung looked like.

Iron Lung

Then I came across this contraption, apparently used by a downtown DC shoe store before folks knew about the damaging effects of radiation exposure. Apparently it somehow helped determine if shoes fit.

Now onto the more fun stuff from the Human Body Human Being exhibit. This is where they keep the fetuses, cancerous smokers’ lungs, hairballs and other similar displays not intended for the squeamish. Oh, and the live leeches.


There’s a variety of lungs on display, none of them very pretty:

Miner’s (Iron and Coal, from left to right)

Miner's Lungs

Then there are your digestive (upper and lower) anomalies:

Megacolon (of a 19 year old who’d been complaining of chronic constipation)


Hairball (from a 12 yr old girl who’d been compulsively eating her hair for 6 years – yeah, it’s shaped like a stomach)


Then there are the fetuses. There are plenty of fetuses in every stage of development, and then there are these:

Conjoined. The sutures are from the autoposy


I forgot to write down what this was afflicted with. Something that made the skull not form over the brain, but I can’t remember what it was called. Started with an “A” I believe.


Then there’s the skeletal development, which ranged from fetal to 5 years old.

Fetal Skeletons

I didn’t even realize this place existed until PoP suggested someone go check it out (I believe at the request of a reader – thank you!) and I’m glad that I was the one to go. I’ll reiterate that it’s not for the squeamish or faint of heart, but if you’re fascinated with the body, early surgical techniques or the history of the microscope – this is your spot. Admission is free but they’re happy to take donations. Try not to get lost on your way. I’ll definitely be recommending this museum to my friends and guests who are tired of the same old Mall experience.

6 Comment

  • My mom used to work at the National Museum of Health and Medicine and I would frequently stop by her office and see not only many of the crazy displays in this post, but other stuff that was back in storage.

    Two of my favorites that weren’t in this post were an eleephantitis leg (just a massively inflamed leg…like huge) and a cyclops baby in a jar. I also saw the surprisingly well-preserved body of a civil war solider in his uniform in his coffin that they were doing DNA testing on in the back one day.

    It’s a great museum, and a terrible shame that it is so hard to find. They have been trying for ages to move it onto the mall, but it has become an excercise in futility. I hear it may be moving to Atlanta very soon, in connection with the CDC.

  • For those with kids, the museum does lots of family-friendly type of events. THis includes a Halloween event on 10/25. We went last year, and it was lots of fun (pasta skeleton making, coloring paper skulls, etc.)
    Halloween Activities at the NMHM!

    When: Saturday, October 25, 2008 (see times below for specific activities)

    What: Pasta skeleton craft activity for ages 5-12 (11 a.m.-2 p.m.) and scavenger hunt (10:00 a.m.-5:30 p.m.)–prizes while they last!

    Cost: Admission and parking are FREE!

  • I used to work on post at WRAMC, so have been there many times. I’ve frequently taken out of town visitors, although it is definitely not for everybody. I do not recommend it following a tour of the Holocaust Memorial (that was an extremely depressing day).

    It’s interesting that they do kids activities. I took my daughter a couple years ago after she begged to go after I had told her about it. I think it was a little intense for her though (she was about 8 at the time).

  • Yeah, I agree that actually touring the whole museum (which I haven’t done) might not be for everyone – specifically including kids. The kids event I went to last year was held in their small auditorium, so the kids were pretty confined in terms of what they saw (not much.)

  • This is so cool! I love the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia and didn’t know that there was anything similar here.

  • The Mutter Museum in Philly is a little more intense than this place – I mean a nine foot human colon that contained more than 40 lbs of impacted fecal matter! Crazy midget and giant skeletons – trust me, it’s worth the road trip.

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