Monday, May 21, 2012

150th Anniversary of the Army Medical Museum

150 years ago today, Brigadier General William A. Hammond, the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army, ordered the establishment of the Army Medical Museum in Washington.  Arguably the military's first medical medical "center of excellence," General Hammond envisioned that the new collection would help to advance military medicine.  In his May 21, 1862 circular, Hammond directed army medical officers to:

 "collect, and to forward to the office of the surgeon general, all specimens of morbid anatomy, surgical or medical, which may be regarded as valuable; together with projectiles and foreign bodies removed, and such other matters as may prove of interest in the study of military medicine or surgery."

Brigadier General William A. Hammond, Surgeon General of the U.S. Army, was responsible for the establishment of the Army Medical Museum in May 1862. (Library of Congress)

 The army's medical officers dutifully complied with Hammond's request for unique specimens.  Needless to say, there was no shortage of material in the aftermath of fierce battles such as Antietam, Fredericksburg and the Wilderness.  In just over six months, enough material was received to warrant the publication of an initial inventory in January 1863.   Major General Daniel E. Sickles sent in his amputated leg after the battle Gettysburg with the message "With the compliments of Major General D.E.S."  (For decades, Sickles, who lived until 1914, would visit his leg at the museum on the anniversary of its amputation)

The New York Times lauded Hammond's efforts, writing that "among the thoughts in which a humane man can indulge without pain in the midst of the chaotic confusion of the rebellion, is the reflection that the busy hands and thoughtful mind of science, now as in other wars, are quietly at work endeavoring to wring good for mankind even out of this evil, and to pluck from the very barbarism of war new fruits for civilization."

Maj. John Hill Brinton (center with beard) at Petersburg, Virginia, collecting specimens during the war.  Before the war, Brinton held the chair of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania. (NMHM)
 Major John Hill Brinton served as the museums' first curator. He routinely visited armies in the field and various hospitals to collect information, data, and illustrations for a planned surgical history of the war in addition to specimens for the museum.  Brinton also employed photography to document medical cases.


The museum, one of Washington's most unique and sobering, has been housed in various locations in Washington over the years.   It was initially located at the Old Riggs Bank Building on Pennsylvania Avenue and 15th Street NW from August to December 1862.  The museum moved from one leased  building to another several times during the war.  In June 1865, the Washington National Republican advised that the Army Medical Museum, located on H Street, between 14th Street and New York Avenues, was open to visitors from 9 AM to 4 PM daily except for Sundays.

Ford's Theatre, ca. 1870.
In 1867, the Army Surgeon General's Office, including the Army Medical Museum, was relocated to Ford's Theatre, which had been converted into office space following its purchase by the government.  The seminal multi-volume Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, published between 1870-1883, was edited here by museum curators.


This building at Independence Avenue and 6th Street, SW on the National Mall (the site of today's Smithsonian Hirshorn Museum) housed the Army Medical Museum and Library from 1887 until the 1960s.
In 1887, the museum  moved to a new building at Independence Avenue and 6th Street Southwest.   In the 1960s, the museum was relocated  to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in upper NW Washington.  With Walter Reed's closure, the museum, now known as the National Museum of Health and Medicine, has been relocated to the Army's Fort Detrick/Forest Glen Annex on Linden Lane in Silver Spring, MD.  The new museum building, the museum's 10th location in 150 years,  officially opened to the public on May 21, 2012 in a special ceremony marking its Sesquicentennial.


Visiting the Museum Today

Although not  for the squeamish, the National Museum of Health and Medicine is much more than a collection of curiosities.   It is a must see museum for getting some understanding of the horrors of the battlefield and the advances from Antietam to Fallujah in military medicine.  One of the museum's primary exhibits, "To Bind Up the Nation's Wounds," explores Civil War medicine in-depth including the use of anesthesia in surgery and the scourge of disease, the war's most virulent killer.  The museum also features the bullet that killed President Lincoln and the bloodstained shirt cuffs of the doctors who attended his deathwatch.

For directions, hours and additional information, check out the NMHM's website at  http://nmhm.washingtondc.museum/planning/index.html


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