A home for medicine's history and heritage

Progress is being made in the important effort to establish a National Health Museum

Posted Jan. 16, 2006.

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Visitors to downtown Washington, D.C., are presented with what may be the world's finest and most comprehensive collection of museums, covering everything from fine art to the history of aviation.

What's missing from this collection on the National Mall, in the eyes of many medical leaders, is an institution devoted to the history and heritage of medicine.

The leaders of the movement to develop a National Health Museum are moving to fill that void.

The museum's chair, former Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan, MD, points out that Washington's existing national museums draw some 25 million visitors a year, many of whom are students who gain inspiration for their futures by the sights they see and the stories to which they are exposed. And the heritage of medicine is rich with exactly such visions.

Think of the groundbreaking advances of the past -- the achievement of blood bank pioneer Charles Drew, MD, or the development by Jonas Salk, MD, of a life-saving polio vaccine. But there's also medical science's promise -- a glimpse of the human genome, for instance -- that will continue to unfold.

The museum embodies the dream of combining these and many other impressions that illustrate medicine's rich heritage. But it will also be unique and digitally advanced -- with both a physical and virtual presence and high-tech exhibits. All told, the hope is that the experience it provides will have a significant impact on our nation's science and math educational resurgence, even igniting young people's desires to grow up in medicine, becoming biological researchers, medical epidemiologists or surgeons, just to name a few examples.

Thus, the National Health Museum's founding members, including the American Medical Association, are determined to see this vision become a reality.

Early on, the AMA made a $1 million commitment to this effort. More recently, the museum has launched, with the AMA's support and cooperation, the Federation of Medicine Campaign to encourage state, county, and medical specialty societies to participate in the museum's development.

While the museum does not yet have a permanent home, it already has a virtual presence on the Internet. The NHM operates AccessExcellence.org, an educational resource for high school health and biology teachers and their students. Founded in 1993, AccessExcellence was donated to the museum by Genentech, the biotechnology company. It has won numerous awards and proved to be widely popular. One month last year, for instance, it set its own record with more than 935,000 individual visits logged on to the site and nearly 9.2 million hits.

The National Health Museum was officially chartered in 1996 but was conceived during the 1980s by then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, MD, who now is the organization's chair emeritus. Progress in recent years has been slow but steady, with momentum gathering in recent years. A easily accessible site has been selected, and legislation was introduced earlier this year in Congress to direct its transfer to the museum from a federal agency. Additionally, an architect has been selected, and fund-raising and outreach campaigns are being conducted within the scientific and business communities.

Completion of the National Museum of Health will fill a major void in the scientific community's efforts to communicate with the public. In addition to serving as a major source of information to millions of people each year, it has the potential to inspire and motivate generations of young people from all over the world toward careers helping others. Support from all areas of the health care field will be essential in reaching that goal.

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