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National Museum of Health and Medicine: Gem Of The Walter Reed Campus

In yet another example of a fortuitous Twitter connection, Tim Clarke, Deputy Director of Communications for the National Museum of Health and Medicine reached out to me after I tweeted about Walter Reed. He graciously offered to give me a guided tour of the museum, located on the Walter Reed campus where I volunteer with the Red Cross.

We spent about an hour reviewing some fascinating exhibits, including the history of body identification techniques. If you’re a fan of NCIS, then you should run (not walk) to this museum to gain insight into the incredible evolution of forensic science over the past 150 years. The exhibit begins with Paul Revere’s dental tools (did you know he was a part-time dentist?) and the story of how he identified the body of a fallen soldier for whom he’d done some unique silver smith work.

The time of death and relative age of human remains can be gauged by bone erosion (they become smoother with age) and material evidence (the type of button found near the remains can be used to identify the season of death – larger buttons were used for heavy winter overcoats for example) among other things.

Did you know that finger print analysis is not automated? Apparently, to this day, a technician must be involved in the computer-generated comparisons because finger prints are too complex for 100% accuracy with computer models.

However, with the advent of DNA analysis, extraordinary advances have been made in our ability to identify remains. In one particularly fascinating case, Charles Scharf’s body was identified after his wife brought in a letter that he’d sent to her from Viet Nam in 1965. She had kept it in a plastic bag in a shoe box since that time. Charles had sealed the letter with his saliva, and because of the excellent condition of the envelope, tiny pieces of DNA remained in the glue. In 2006 pathologists were able to link his remains to his DNA sample, and finally confirm his fate.

Modern autopsies can be performed rapidly with the guidance of CT scanners. The likely internal injury that caused a soldiers death can be identified via CT, and then rapidly confirmed by pathologists. Research into armed forces injuries can result in improved equipment and increased safety. In one case, a retrospective analysis of CT scans demonstrated that military personnel had larger chest cavities (on average) than initially thought – this resulted in the provision of longer needles for chest tubes in trauma bays.

And speaking of trauma bays, the museum has transported an entire trauma tent from Balad Air Force Base in Iraq to memorialize medical care during the war. A 3000 pound concrete slab of flooring provides the base of the exhibit, complete with original blood and betadine stains, gouges in the plastic floor sealant, and duct tape. Original metal tent doors and canvas show evidence of sand storm damage, with sand still coating the tent air ducts. Action photos taken at the trauma bay surround the exhibit. Nothing brings home the reality of war like this living 3-D memorial.

Just to the left of the tent is a large photo of a Black Hawk helicopter and a wounded soldier being carried by EMS through a canvas archway. On the ceiling of the archway is an American flag. I turned to Tim and asked him why the flag was on the ceiling and he said,

“That was so the soldiers could look up from their stretchers as they arrived at the medical facility and know that they were ‘home.’ They were safe now, and were going to be taken care of.”

Tim also introduced me to the Abraham Lincoln exhibit, where the bullet that sealed his fate (along with skull fragments, a tuft of his hair, and his surgeon’s sleeves) are on display. It’s an extraordinary feeling, being so close to history.

I’m really glad that I had the chance to experience history with Tim, and I strongly recommend that you contact him to set up your own guided tour. If you’re a member of a professional society, or are coming to DC for a meeting or event, why not make the National Museum of Health and Medicine a part of your travel plans?

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