Magical medical tour: The quirky collections of healing

From hairballs to bloody tables from the Civil War, the country's medical museums are reminders of how far medicine has come.

By Damon Adams — Posted July 12, 2004

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Summer has hit its stride, and vacation ideas are filling your head. The Statue of Liberty, Grand Canyon and Disney World might be on the list.

But what about the hairball in Washington, D.C.? Or the amputation devices in North Carolina that were used to cut off a Civil War general's arm? And don't forget a U.S. Supreme Court justice's bladder stones in Philadelphia.

These and other morsels of medical history can be found at medical museums, which provide an entertaining and informative reminder that medicine has come a long way in a short time.

So whether you're a serious historian or simply looking to explore the stranger side of early medicine, here are some places to consider.

National Museum of Health and Medicine

One of three hairballs at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C., is a stomach-size clump of hair removed during surgery from a 12-year-old girl. Since age 6, she had suffered from trichophagia, an emotional disorder that caused her to eat her hair.

That's just one of the unusual sights at a museum with 24 million specimens and artifacts.

"You've got hairballs. You've got an elephantiasis leg. If there's something here that doesn't interest you or gross you out, we haven't done our job," said Jim Connor, PhD, the museum's assistant director.

The museum is home to one of the world's largest collections of fluid-preserved and other human specimens. Its anatomical collections contain more than 5,000 skeletal specimens and about 8,000 preserved organs, documenting cases of disease and injury.

"You can see the different levels of infection that you wouldn't see today," Dr. Connor said.

The museum was established in 1862, when U.S. Army Brig. Gen. William Alexander Hammond, MD, the U.S. Army Surgeon General, issued orders that all Union Army medical officers collect "all specimens of morbid anatomy ... together with projectiles and foreign bodies removed."

The collection features the bullet that killed President Abraham Lincoln, the probe used to locate the bullet and bone fragments from Lincoln's skull. Leeches and kidney stones are displayed. A comprehensive collection of microscopes dates to the 1600s.

In July 1863, Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles had his right leg shattered by a cannonball while fighting in Gettysburg, and his leg was amputated just above the knee. He sent the bones in a box to the museum with a card that read: "With the compliments of Major General D.E.S." He used to visit the museum to see the leg.

Some young visitors to the museum are inspired by the artifacts.

"Many physicians have confessed or stated that their origins went back to when they were young and visited here and this was a life-changing event," Dr. Connor said.

Others are not so moved.

"Of course, some kids come through here and say, 'Ugh, I would never be a doctor,' " he said.

Mütter Museum

Last summer, the Mütter Museum asked visitors what brought them to the Philadelphia attraction. About one in three mentioned an interest in general medicine. But 43% said they came for the odd and the strange.

"Our reputation precedes us, and people know we have unusual material here. We're not Disney. We're the real deal," said museum Director Gretchen Worden, adding that about one in four visitors is a medical or health professional.

Consider these gems: Bladder stones from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. A deformed skeleton of a woman whose rib cage was compressed by too tightly lacing her corset. The "Soap Lady," a preserved corpse from 1874 of a woman whose fatty tissue had decomposed after burial into a grayish-white fatty wax.

"Admittedly, this stuff is not only strange to the public; it's strange to physicians, too," Worden said.

Many of the most memorable pieces, she said, came from surgery professor Thomas Dent Mütter, MD, who told the College of Physicians of Philadelphia in 1856 that he was retiring and offered his collection of anatomical and pathological materials, which he used for teaching.

The museum, based at the college, features more than 2,000 objects -- dentures, safety pins and food -- removed from the throats and airways of patients by Chevalier Jackson, MD, and his colleagues. The autopsy of Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, was performed by members of the college, and the museum was allowed to keep their connected livers and to make a plaster cast of their torsos.

Medical instruments show the change in technology. Among them: the medicine chest of Benjamin Rush, MD; Florence Nightingale's sewing kit; and a wooden stethoscope made by Rene Laennec, who is credited with inventing the device in 1816.

"It is an important way of educating people. It is powerful stuff because it is real," Worden said.

National Museum of Civil War Medicine

Appropriately, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine is centrally located about 30 minutes from five major Civil War battlefields, including Gettysburg and Antietam. The museum in Frederick, Md., tells the story of the war between the states and its impact on medicine.

"At the time of the Civil War, America was behind Europe in research and general medical care. At the end of the war, that, for the most part, had been completely turned around," said museum Executive Director George Wunderlich.

Physicians had no knowledge of antiseptic practices or germ theory, according to the museum. But organizational changes in medicine helped save lives during the war, Wunderlich said.

"During the Civil War, it was the first time we had field aid stations. We had never given men treatment on the field of battle close to where they were and as safely," he said.

At the start of the war, there was no established system to transport wounded soldiers from the battlefield to field hospitals. In 1862, a Union Army medical director created a system of ambulances and stretcher bearers, and the Confederate Army developed a similar plan. "They were horse-drawn wagons," Wunderlich said of early ambulances.

A field dressing station and evacuation scene of ambulance corps members are among the lifelike displays at the museum.

There is a frock coat and boots worn by Union surgeon Louis Daniel Radzinsky, who became an assistant surgeon with the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the unit of black soldiers depicted in the film "Glory." The museum has the only known surgeon's tent to survive the war.

An operating table shows war's brutality.

"It was someone's kitchen table that was dragged outside for two days. It still has blood stains on it," Wunderlich said.

Country Doctor Museum

Located in rural Bailey, N.C., this quaint museum is housed in two 19th-century doctors' offices that were rebuilt as one. It includes the 1857 office of Howard Franklin Freeman, MD, and an apothecary area with cabinets from the 1860s. Some bottles still have their original medicines.

Microscopes, bloodletting instruments and other items used by early rural physicians are exhibited. A leather vial case from 1915 contains medications dispensed by North Carolina doctor Henderson Irwin, MD.

A Civil War amputation set used by two doctors to amputate an arm of Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson in 1863 is also displayed.

The Art of Nursing building features nursing uniforms. A carriage house boasts a saddle, horse-drawn buggy, a 1926 Model T that belonged to a doctor and a 1912 Model T that cost $302.34.

They all pay tribute to the rural practice of medicine.

"There would be one doctor in a community who would go about 30 miles one way to visit patients. A lot of their day was spent doing house calls," said museum Manager Anne Anderson. "They were much more familiar on a personal level with their patients than doctors can be today."

A group of seven women, including Bailey physician Josephine Newell, MD, started the museum in 1967. Its board of directors sought a new owner, and the museum was donated in 2003 to the Medical Foundation of East Carolina University. The facility was closed for more than a year for structural repairs and improvements, then reopened in April 2004.

"It's kind of a little treasure off the beaten path," Anderson said.

International Museum of Surgical Science

This Chicago destination is a mixture of art and surgical history. The four-floor International Museum of Surgical Science is housed in a building patterned after a French chateau and constructed in 1917. Its interior boasts marble finishes, eight fireplaces and a gilded metal grand staircase.

The museum's Hall of Murals shows off paintings of surgical scenes while the Hall of Immortals features life-size sculptures of Hippocrates, French surgeon Ambroise Pare and other medical leaders. The more artistic pieces include a plaster cast of the death mask of Napoleon.

The museum contains more than 7,000 medical artifacts and spans 4,000 years of surgical history. A look around reveals an artificial left arm from 1880, an 1800 wood arm splint, microscopes, cupping devices for bloodletting, an x-ray shoe fitter and a working iron lung from 1951.

"You can imagine how loud it was with all [the iron lungs] in one room," said Marnie Dawson, museum director of programs and events.

Some of the prize possessions are a 16th-century amputation saw with reversible blade and original x-rays taken by pioneer radiologist Emil Grubbe.

A case displays 4,000-year-old trephined skulls, one of the more popular items with younger visitors. An optical exhibit showcases goggles, sunglasses, spectacle cases and surgical instruments.

The museum's library has more than 5,000 books and bound journals, including medical books from the 16th century.

A 19th-century apothecary shop also offers a glimpse of the past.

"Most people walk out of here with an appreciation for modern medicine," Dawson said.

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Waiting to take you away

Country Doctor Museum

Location: 6642 Peele Road, Bailey, N.C.
Contact: 252-235-4165 (link)
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.. Closed Sunday and Monday, Christmas week and major holidays.
Cost: $4 for adults and seniors, $2 for students 18 and younger. Groups by appointment.

International Museum of Surgical Science

Location: 1524 N. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago
Phone: 312-642-6502
Hours: For summer, Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.. Closed Monday. Also closed Dec. 24-25, Dec. 31 and Jan. 1.
Cost: $6 for adults; $3 for students and seniors. Admission is free on Tuesday. Limited parking available behind the museum.
Web site: (link)

Mütter Museum

Location: 19 S. 22nd St., Philadelphia
Phone: 215-563-3737, ext. 211
Hours: Daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Thanksgiving, Dec. 25 and Jan. 1.
Cost: $10 for adults, $7 for students and seniors.
Web site: (link)

National Museum of Civil War Medicine

Location: 48 E. Patrick St., Frederick, Md.
Phone: 301-695-1864
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.. Closed Easter, Thanksgiving, Dec. 24-25, Dec. 31, Jan. 1.
Cost: $6.50 for adults, $6 for seniors, $4.50 for children ages 10-16, free for children age 9 and younger.
Web site: (link)

National Museum of Health and Medicine

Location: Walter Reed Army Medical Center, 6900 Georgia Ave. and Elder St., NW, Washington, D.C.
Phone: 202-782-2200
Hours: Daily, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Dec. 25.
Cost: Free admission and parking.
Web site: (link)

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Regional touring


Public Health Museum in Massachusetts, Tewksbury, Mass. (link)

William P. Didusch Center for Urologic History, Linthicum, Md. (link)

Dorothy Carpenter Medical Archives, Winston-Salem, N.C. (link)

John Q. Adams Center for the History of Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery, Alexandria, Va. (link)


Wood Library-Museum of Anesthesiology, Park Ridge, Ill. (link)

Cyber Museum of Neurosurgery, Rolling Meadows, Ill. (link)

Pearson Museum, Springfield, Ill. (link)

Indiana Medical History Museum, Indianapolis (link)

University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics Medical Museum, Iowa City (link)

Still National Osteopathic Museum, Kirksville, Mo. (link)

Dittrick Medical History Center, Cleveland (link)


Alabama Museum of the Health Sciences, Birmingham, Ala. (link)

Arkansas Country Doctor Museum, Lincoln, Ark. (link)

Truman G. Blocker History of Medicine Collection, Galveston, Texas (link)


Southern California Medical Museum, San Bernardino, Calif. (link)

Museum of Vision, San Francisco (link)

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