Museums of Medicine

by Mary Catherine Cochran

Q: True or False? Traditional Native American Healers believe the healing process goes beyond the patient.

Q: True or False?  Most battlefield surgeries were conducted without the benefit of anesthesia.

Great Museums and historic and cultural exhibits that tell the story of medicine and hold the answers to these and other questions, are located within an easy drive of Howard County.

The National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institute of Health, opened an exhibit this week called “Native Voices: Native Peoples’ Concepts of Health and Illness.” This exhibit “explores the interconnectedness of wellness, illness, and cultural life for Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians.” A recent article in the Washington Post reviews the exhibit;  “Using oral histories, cultural artifacts and interactive media, the exhibit examines such topics as the importance of ceremonies, the “pre-Captain Cook diet” of Pacific islanders, native views of land and food, the lethal epidemics of European disease and the relationship of traditional healing with Western medicine. A timeline points out, among other surprises, that while most early cultures understood anatomy only from examining the remains of animals, the Unangan people, who lived 12,000 years ago on the Aleutian Islands, dissected the bodies of their enemies and slaves, learning skills that enabled them, for example, to suture wounds.”

The National Library of Medicine is located on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda Maryland.  The exhibit is open Monday through Fridays from 8:30 a.m to 5:00 p.m.   Click here for more information on how to visit.

Flash forward a couple of hundred years to learn about medicine on the battlefields of the Civil war at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland and at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum on the Antietam National Battlefield.

The website tell us; “The interactive experience that is the National Museum of Civil War Medicine not only gives a snapshot of Civil War-time medicine including dentistry, veterinary medicine and medical evacuation, it allows visitors to put faces and names to those who fought, were injured, the surgeons and caregivers who tended them.  The experience is a personal one, engaging visitors in the stories of soldiers, surgeons, medics, and nurses as they gain an understanding of the medical advances of the time.  For some a bit of family history may be found as well, the museum has a research department willing to help those with questions about ancestors injured in the war.”

Each of the two Civil War museums devotes space to Dr. Jonathan Letterman- the Major in charge of medicine for the Army of the Potomac.  Dr. Letterman’s practices of triage, and evacuation saved countless lives and are still employed today.

Visit the National Civil War Museum of Medicine and the Pry House Field Hospital Museum.


A: True. Traditional healers take into account not only the patient’s immediate family and community, but future generations as well.

A: The museum says “false”.  “Gaseous ether and chloroform were both widely available and there therapeutic impact was well known in Union and Confederate medical services.  Major surgery was carried out using these anesthetics if they were available.  It is estimated that greater than 90% of all major surgery was carried out with anesthetics.”



  1. Don’t forget to mention the National Museum of Dentistry that is in Baltimore on Greene Street right across from the University of Maryland Hospital.

    The Museum is housed in the old building of my alma-matter, the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, University of Maryland.

    Here is an interesting tid-bit: The University of Maryland Dental School was the first dental school in the world, opening in 1840. They invented the degree “D.D.S.” or Doctor of Dental Surgery.

    • Thanks, Trevor! I did not know about this one! What a great fact about the University of Maryland Dental School!

  2. Duane St. Clair

    With the closing of Walter Reed I wonder what happened to their museum of military medicine. I visited it once and found it fascinating that so much of emergency medical treatment came from treating soldiers in combat. Their exhibit on robotic surgery was amazing.

    • I don’t know, Duane. I was not aware of that museum, either. I’ll see if I can find out!

    • Here you go… “Due to the closure of WRAMC, NMHM relocated to US Army Garrison-Forest Glen in Silver Spring, Montgomery County, Maryland.[6] Authority over the Forest Glen garrison was transferred from WRAMC to Fort Detrick in October 2008. The NMHM closed its exhibits on April 3, 2011, and reopened on September 15, 2011.”

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