‘This Is The Place Death Delights To Help The Living’

The horrors of war and the medical techniques used on the wounded in the battlefield are incomprehensible to those of us who have never donned a soldier’s uniform. The National Museum of Health and Medicine, also known as the Army Medical Museum, puts these realities into context.

Founded during the Civil War as a center for medical study of gunshot wounds, amputations and other physical maladies, the museum was tucked away on the grounds of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., from 1971 until 2011. When the Walter Reed Center outgrew its facilities, a new building was built for the National Museum of Health and Medicine next to the Silver Spring, Maryland, annex of Fort Detrick. Its official opening was May 21, 2012.

(Warning: Some readers may find the images in this gallery quite gruesome. View at your own risk!)While this medical museum is small, housing only three galleries, its exhibits on skeletons, brain damage, disease and military medicine from the Civil War era to the present day are engaging, if not disconcerting. There are displays of baby skeletons; cross sections of parts of bodies to expose muscle tissue; a leg and a scrotum affected by elephantiasis; stillborn conjoined twins preserved in formaldehyde; a complete brain and spinal column, also preserved in a liquid solution; remains plucked from the battlefields of Antietam, Manassas, and Fredericksburg; and numerous bullets and bits of shrapnel. There are more than 500 bullets and pieces of shrapnel in the Civil War collection alone.

There are famous, or infamous, exhibits here, most notably the bullet that John Wilkes Booth used to kill Abraham Lincoln and the steamer trunk used by Dorothea Dix, who supervised the Union nurses during the Civil War. A recent addition to the collection is Trauma Bay II, the concrete slab that was the “primary resuscitation bay in the Emergency Department of the U.S. Air Force Balad Theater Hospital” in Iraq.

Although the displays that reference known historical figures do put these exhibits into context, it is the everyday soldier, who was injured, maimed, or died in war, whose sacrifices helped advance military medicine as we know it today. As stated in one of the displays, “This is the place death delights to help the living.”