Remains of American Civil War soldiers live in storage…for now

Posted on Thursday, May 5, 2011

Fractured femur of a 29-year-old soldier wounded in the Battle of Gaines’ Mill (Virgina), June 27, 1862. The patient was admitted to hospital July 30 and died of sepsis Sept. 26. / Photo: Owen Egan

By Jim Hynes

…From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood,
Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv’d neck and side-falling head,
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump,
And has not yet look’d on it.
-Walt Whitman,
The Wound-Dresser (1865)

The scars of the American Civil War, which started 150 years ago last month, are still visible today. You can see them, literally, right here at McGill – if you know where to look.

Tucked away in a storage area of the Duff Medical Building, with the rest of the artefacts of the Maude Abbott Medical Museum, is a collection of bones from American Civil War soldiers that first made its way to McGill in 1907.

The bones were acquired by Maude Abbott, the McGill cardiology pioneer who also served as curator of the Museum (under its various names) from 1901 until her retirement in 1936. Seeking to rebuild the Museum’s collection after much of it was lost in a fire that almost destroyed the University’s Medical Building in 1907, Abbott put out a call for help to her fellow medical museum curators in North America. That call was answered by, among others, the U.S. Army Medical Museum in Washington, D.C., which donated approximately 1,200 bones to McGill, including a number of Civil War specimens.

Most of the Museum’s pathology collection moved from its home in the rebuilt Strathcona Building into the University’s new Pathological Institute (now the Duff building) when the latter opened in 1923. Abbott’s Medical Historical Museum (comprising what was left in the Strathcona building after 1923) was dismantled after her passing in 1940, its specimens discarded or moved to Pathological Institute. Renovations to that building in the 1960s and more changes in the 1990s saw all of the collections boxed up and moved into storage. That’s where Dr. Richard Fraser, a pathologist at the MUHC and professor of pathology in the Faculty of Medicine, found the Civil War bones in 1996.

“They were high up on the shelves, just sort of stuffed there in three or four cardboard boxes, semi-wrapped up in newspaper. I think the date on the paper was 1972 or 73,” said Fraser, now the curator of the virtual McGill Medical Museum.

“At first I had no idea what they were,” Fraser said. “But I did a rough catalogue and a bit of investigating and discovered that some of them were from the 1860s, which led to the discovery that they were the Civil War bones, and I was able to piece together the whole of the story.”

Approximately 80 specimens from the U.S Army donation remain at McGill today, 27 of which are examples of injuries incurred during Civil War. They include a bullet-shattered arm amputated at the Second Battle of Bull Run (1862) and a section of a man’s vertebrae with a bullet lodged between the bones. Four of the specimens are currently on loan to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

The Civil War bones emerged from their storage space in 2005 as part of the War, Bones at Books display Fraser and some of his colleagues put together at the Osler Library.

Considered valuable teaching tools when they were acquired, providing a glimpse into mid-19th century battlefield surgery practices, injuries and diseases, the bones are mostly of historical value today. Nevertheless, Fraser believes that the bones and the Museum’s other holdings (including the collection of famed McGill physician and professor, Sir William Osler, and the rest of Maude Abbott’s impressive collection of medical specimens) are an important part of both McGill’s heritage and Canadian medical history.

“In the long run my hope is that we get to establish on an official basis at the University a proper McGill Medical Museum,” Fraser said, “and that we have some funding and resources to preserve and exhibit this material properly and to put it to use by illustrating stories of the history of medicine at McGill and elsewhere and by teaching about disease.”

To visit the virtual McGill Medical Museum and see the War, Bones, and Books exhibit, go to: www.mcgill.ca/medicalmuseum/.

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