Kevin Wolf  /  AP
Lenore Barbian, the museums assistant curator for anatomical collections, opens a drawer containing the remains of the Lyon quintuplets, the first male quadruplets born in the U.S., at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.
updated 2/26/2006 5:16:09 PM ET 2006-02-26T22:16:09

On one shelf rests a giant hair ball that filled the stomach of a 12-year-old girl who compulsively chewed her hair. Floating in a nearby glass container is a young man’s leg that ballooned in size because of elephantiasis.

This isn’t a carnival freak show. The specimens are among thousands of medical oddities—many ghoulish—collected by the National Museum of Health and Medicine, which is dedicated to tracing the history and practice of medicine over the centuries.

But the museum, located on the 113-acre campus of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, likely will have to find a new home. Last summer, the Base Closure and Realignment Commission voted to close the hospital and move many of its medical services to suburban Bethesda, Md., by 2011.

The commission does not indicate what will happen to the museum, other than to say it will not be “disestablished.” Museum officials are also uncertain, though it’s expected to move with the hospital to Bethesda.

It would be the museum’s 10th move since its founding in 1862 as the Army Medical Museum. The surgeon general originally wanted medical officers to collect specimens from dead and wounded soldiers on Civil War battlefields so that their diseases and injuries could be studied.

One of the museum’s most popular objects from that era belongs to Union Gen. Daniel E. Sickles. His right leg was mangled by a Confederate cannonball in Gettysburg, Pa., in 1863, and had to be sawed off just above the knee.

Kevin Wolf  /  AP
A section of John Wilkes Booth's spine, resting in a drawer, with a piece of his spinal cord, bottom center, a jar that contains President Dwight Eisenhowers gallstones, center top, and a section of President Garfield's vertebrae are among thousands of specimens collected by the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C.

The general decided to send the amputated leg to the museum in a miniature coffin. It came with a card that read: “With the compliments of Major General D.E.S.”

Sickles recovered from the wound, and became fond of visiting his leg on the anniversary of the amputation. Today, the shattered bones are mounted by metal prongs to a polished wooden base.

A few steps away, the bullet that killed President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre also is displayed, as are bone fragments and hair from the president’s skull and the bloodstained shirt of a doctor who assisted in the autopsy.

Up to 60,000 people visit the museum each year, and many others participate in outreach programs and log on to its Web site, spokesman Steven Solomon said. Before moving to Walter Reed in 1971 — about five miles from downtown — the museum was on the National Mall where it drew 765,000 people in its final year.

The casual tourists are now gone, but scholars, military service members, doctors, Civil War buffs and school groups are among those who still seek out the museum. “This is definitely a destination attraction,” Solomon said.

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Officials wouldn’t comment on how another move might affect the museum’s visibility. It receives funding from the Defense Department and through private grants and donations.

Altogether, the museum has nearly 2,000 specimens from the Civil War era. And museum curators still occasionally hear from families who believe their relatives’ remains are part of the collection.

“In the nine years I’ve been here, families have never been wrong,” said Lenore Barbian, the museum’s assistant curator for anatomical collections. “They’re thrilled that they have a family member that’s part of a museum.”

The collection doesn’t end in the mid-19th century. The exhibit “Battlefield Surgery 101: From the Civil War to Vietnam” details the evolution of military surgery with artifacts and photographs from the nation’s major wars.

And there are exhibits that show — sometimes in gruesome detail — how the body functions in sickness and health. Besides gawking at the giant hair ball and swollen leg, visitors can see deformed fetuses, including a pair of conjoined twins floating in a small jar. There’s also a skeleton, sitting in a rocking chair, of a man who had such severe arthritis that all his bones fused together.

“I was like, ewww!” said Kisses Martinez, a pathology student who visited the museum. “It opens up your eyes to a lot of things.”

Kevin Wolf  /  AP
The brains of the man who assassinated President Garfield, Charles Junius Guiteau, are kept drawer next to the cabinet that contain a section of Garfield's spine.

Only 1 percent of the museum’s approximately 25 million artifacts are on display at any one time, Solomon said. In the past, many specimens were laid out for all to see — often with little explanation. Now, however, the museum strives to provide context with story-driven exhibits.

Among the many treasures stashed behind the scenes is the skeleton of Able, the first monkey to fly in space. In a blue cabinet across the room, the spinal cord of Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, rests alongside a jar that contains President Dwight Eisenhower’s gallstones.

The collection also includes a piece of President Garfield’s vertebrae, which was pierced by an assassin’s bullet in 1881 (though historians say doctors ultimately caused Garfield’s death three months later, when they used unsterilized tools to probe his wound).

In the very next locker are two drawers filled with bones that belong to the crazed lawyer that shot him, Charles Julius Guiteau. There’s even a jar that contains Guiteau’s brain.

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