From Privates to Presidents

Reading the article From Privates to Presidents by Lenore T. Barbian and Paul S. Sledzik provided details on how the deceased of our land are preserved and studied. I liked how the article discussed various aspects regarding how human remains are reviewed and researched and how anatomical subjects are displayed and protected by museums and researchers. Barbian and Sledzik make statements throughout the article from various museums and experts about how human remains are studied, such as the remains of presidents and Civil War soldiers studied for historical significance. The article also discussed how humans respond differently to human remains depending on their cultural beliefs, where some people find it disgusting and others find it fascinating.  Particularly sacred is the study of ancient skeletons that are protected by the The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), or the bodies of Catholic Saints that are preserved in reliquaries. One question that historians and archaeologists ask themselves is, “What are human remains?” According to the article, the word known as “remaneo,” means “to remain behind.” Only a few groups of individuals in the field of history study human remains. In the National Museum of Health and Medicine’s (NMHM) Anatomical Collections section, the museum has spent over two decades studying the remains of several humans from different cultures. The NMHM of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology is among the few museums in the country that currently collects human remains, and puts them on exhibit for the public. This museum participation gives valuable awareness to studies on human remains, for both museum visitors and workers on how body parts of deceased individuals are preserved.

Another study on remains would be described in the anatomy study of the remains of President Abraham Lincoln. I believe that if people read this, they will discover how examining the bodies of many historic individuals could benefit both history and medicine. After Lincoln’s death, pathologists Colonel Joseph Woodward and Major Edward Curtis, who served under U.S. Army Surgeon General J.K. Barnes performed an autopsy of the deceased president’s remains. Their studies of Lincoln’s body appears in Medical and Surgical History, where modern medicine professionals examine their findings on the gunshot wound in Abraham Lincoln’s skull, which aids in research for several others cases involving similar assassinations. The specimens of Lincoln’s body recovered from the autopsy have become a vital piece of American history, crucial to American culture, including bone fragments from Lincoln’s skull and some strands from Lincoln’s hair.

Civil War studies have become a fascination in historic examinations and medical autopsy studies. The Civil War collection of deceased people is quite significant for the number of relatives of the departed that come to visit the displayed exhibits. I think that those who come to see their long dead relatives at this exhibition brings some family connections to the museum.   “Although researchers interested in military medicine or military history often use the collection, the most intriguing requests come from families with stories about great-grandpa’s leg in Washington.” (Barbian and Sledzik) Military studies of the dead are quite the historic topic, as I have read in many textbooks and seen on many websites.  Americans are very respectful of those who have served our country bravely and lost their lives.  Because of that, there is a great emphasis on finding soldiers who are did not come home so, “Millions of dollars are spent in the search for and identification of soldiers who remain missing in action.” According to the writings of Barbian and Sledzik, a famous man of the soldiers to serve in the Vietnam War who was identified in the Tomb of the Unknowns, as a result of DNA analysis, is Michael Joseph Blassie. In 1991, thanks to the development of identification technology, extraction and amplification, by the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL),  his remains were correctly identified and he was given a proper burial in his hometown with his family in attendance.  The peace of mind and comfort that this brought to Blassie’s family as well as many other families who lost loved ones in horrific wars, was worth the cost of the Civil War specimens.

In conclusion, Barbian and Sledzik state “museums, as the stewards of history, have a commitment to maintain biological materials.” This statement I reason to be true because these facilities preserve and display the historical antiquities, such as the bodies of those who have passed, and without them we would not be able to understand the lessons of the past, and the lives of the men and women who existed before us. The ethical questions that surround the research and display of human remains will continue to challenge us as human beings, medical researchers, and historians.  Barbian states “denying the visitor access to these materials denies them knowledge of themselves.”  It is of tremendous importance that we insure that the bodies of the departed be cared for, by their families or the government willing to protect them.

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