The Army Medical Museum

The 'Old Red Brick' Army Medical Museum and Library, Washington, D. C. - U. S. - National Library of Medicine

Army Medical Museum specimen, c. 1870. - Library of Congress

The Army Medical Museum was established in Washington, D. C. in 1862 by Surgeon-General William Hammond with the aim of increasing knowledge of disease and battlefield injuries in order to better care for the soldiers of the Union Army. In addition to precise documentation of wounds and case histories, the mandate of the Museum included the collection of specimens related to battlefield injuries.

The first director of the Museum was John Brinton, who had been one of General Grant’s medical officers. He quickly became an ardent supporter of the Museum’s aims. Brinton and his assistants collected amputated limbs directly from the battlefield as well as diseased organs derived from autopsies (sometimes going so far as scavenging from recent burials!). These specimens were shipped to the Museum in Washington D. C., often packed in kegs filled with brine or whiskey for preservation. There, they were described in detail and preserved for future study. Images of some of these specimens as well as many photographs and drawings of patients, their wounds, and the results of treatment were published in The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion.

After the end of the war, the Museum broadened its outlook and began collecting medical instruments and artifacts (such as the world-renowned Billing’s microscope collection). During World War I, its mandate expanded further to include the education of medical staff, troops and civilians (on subjects such as sexually transmitted disease). At this time, the number of pathologic specimens acquired by the Museum also increased dramatically and it began training pathologists for developing registries of this material as well as for field work in Army camps in Europe and the US. This work continued following the end of the war and the Army Institute of Pathology was created in 1944 as a division of the Museum in order to better handle the accumulated pathologic material. It became known as the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in 1949. The Medical Museum changed its name to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in 1988 and remains one of the pre-eminent medical museums in the world.

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