May 21

This Day in History

Presidential

May 21, 2000:

Garfield's spine on display at museum

On this day in 2000, the bones of President James Garfield's spine are on display for a final day as part of the Out of the Blue Closets exhibit at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C. The exhibit featured medical oddities from the museum's archives.

The British medical journal The Lancet published a story about the exhibit in May 2000. Among many other medical curiosities, the display featured President Garfield's spinal column that showed exactly where one out of two assassin's bullets had passed through it on July 2, 1881. The first bullet grazed Garfield's arm. The second bullet lodged below his pancreas.

Alexander Graham Bell, who was one of Garfield's physicians at the time, tried to use an early version of a metal detector to find the second bullet, but failed. Historical accounts vary slightly as to the exact cause of Garfield's death. Physicians may have given him treatments that hastened his demise, including the administering of quinine, morphine, brandy and calomel; he was also fed through the rectum. Others insist Garfield died from an already advanced case of heart disease that the trauma of the shooting exacerbated. Autopsy reports described how pressure from the festering pancreatic wound created a fatal aneurism. Regardless, Garfield succumbed to complications from his wounds 80 days after being shot.

Garfield's spine is not the only presidential body part to have been an item of interest at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. The museum also owns some of Lincoln's skull fragments and President Eisenhower's gallstones. A museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, keeps a tumor removed from President Grover Cleveland. John F. Kennedy's brain, which was removed during his autopsy after his assassination in 1963, disappeared and has never been found.

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