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The gruesome skeletal specimens at the National Museum of Health and Medicine

The skeleton of Peter Cluckey at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Image Credit: The National Museum of Health and Medicine

The skeleton of Peter Cluckey on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.  Image Credit: Donald West on Flickr.

The skeleton of Peter Cluckey on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Image Credit: Donald West on Flickr.

Founded as the Army Medical Museum in 1862, the National Museum of Health and Medicine was established to document and study the effects of disease and trauma incurred in battle.  Medical officers collected specimens embedded with projectiles, while museum staff took pictures of soldiers who had been shot, had limbs amputated, and the results of other surgical procedures.

The Anatomical Collections at the National Museum of Health and Medicine include four types of specimens: anatomical and pathological; fluid preserved gross anatomical and pathological; medical research collections containing histological slides, tissue blocks, and related archival materials. Some of the most notable skeletal specimens include the skeleton of Peter Cluckey, the vertebrae of President Garfield, and the pelvis of Major General Henry Barnum.

The Fused Skeleton of Peter Cluckey

Peter Cluckey (September 16th 1882-September 10th 1925) joined the Army when he was 17 years old during the Spanish American War. Though Cluckey retired from the Army after three years, he re-enlisted in 1904. Soon after rejoining he experienced joint pain and stiffness during a horseback mounted drill. He was diagnosed with rheumatism, treated, and discharged from the Army with disability in 1905.

For the next 20 years doctors tried to treat Cluckey’s condition but his disease worsened anyway.  When he was fully immobilized because all of his joints fused together, his legs were bent into a sitting position so he could be put in a chair or laid on his side in bed. Cluckey’s disorder left him so helpless that four of his front teeth were pulled out so he could eat and drink.

Before Cluckey died at 43-years-old, he willed his body to the Army Medical Museum so that doctors could study it and learn more about his disorder.  During the autopsy, doctors discovered that he suffered from “chronic progressive ankylosing rheumatoid arthritis.”

Most of Cluckey’s skeleton has been on display at the museum since his death (full length picture here). Some of his bones were removed and substituted with remains from another skeleton, and these bones have been colored yellow.

The Three Vertebrae of an Assassinated President

The Deathbed of President James A. Garfield. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Three vertebrae (pictured here) removed from the body of President James A. Garfield are also part of the Anatomical Collection at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

On July 2nd 1881 President Garfield was shot two times while waiting for a train at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station. The first bullet only grazed the his arm, but the second bullet penetrated the right side of this lower back and pierced Garfield’s first lumbar vertebra, crossing right to left.

Because the bullet was lodged so deep in his body and his doctors didn’t have the imaging tools necessary to locate projectile, Garfield’s medical team used probes and hands, often unsterilized, to find the projectile. Garfield languished for 80 days until September 19th 1881, when died from an infection and internal bleeding.

The doctors who performed his autopsy discovered that the bullet penetrated Garfield’s first lumbar vertebra and landed in the fatty tissue on the left side below his pancreas, missing major organs, arteries, and veins. Medical historians believe the use of unsterilized medical equipment led to the infection that played a large part in Garfield’s death, and they believe that he likely would have survived had the shooting happened today.

The assassin, Charles Julius Guiteau, was convicted for President Garfield’s murder and hanged on June 30th 1882. Part of Guiteau’s brain and bones are also stored that the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

Today there is a red plastic probe that runs through Garfield’s vertebrae that marks the path of the bullet.

The next specimen is probably one of the most cringe-worthy.

The Pelvis of Major General Henry Barnum

Major General Henry Barnum with the rope passing through the wound in his pelvis. Image Credit: David Foster on Flickr

Major General Henry Barnum (September 24th 1833-January 29th 1892) was a Union soldier who was injured at the Battle of Malvern Hill on July 1st 1862. A musket ball went through the lower left quadrant of his abdomen, piercing his intestines and the ilium of his pelvis. At the time doctors considered his wound to be fatal so he was left in a field hospital.

Barnum was captured a few days after his injury but exchanged 15 days later. When the wound was opened in October 1862 some bone fragments were removed. In January of 1863 he was promoted to colonel and sent back to the field.

A year later Barnum visited a private doctor who found a large abscess and pushed a probe through the wound tract to drain it. Then the physician threaded the probe with a strip of oakum, a rope typically used to caulk the seams of ships, and passed it through the wound to keep it draining. Barnum kept a rope through his pelvis the rest of his life.

Major General Henry Barnum was so hard-core that he not only stayed in the Army but was promoted to brigadier general and was wounded to two subsequent battles. He lived until he as 59-years-old, 28 years with a string running through a bone in his pelvis.


NMHM: Anatomical Collections. (2013). Retrieved on September 27, 2014 from:

To bind up a nation’s wounds: Trauma and surgery. (2012). Retrieved on September 27, 2014 from:

Visibly human health and disease in the human body: Skeleton of Spanish American War veteran showing evidence of severe arthritis. Retrieved on September 27, 2014 from:

Schaffer, A. (2005). A president felled by an assassin and 1880’s medical care. The New York Times.  Retrieved on September 27, 2014 from:

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