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9 6 I should have gone to bed early, since I was planning to visit the Carnegie Human Embryo Collection the next morning. I stayed up until one a.m., however, to finish Bobbie Ann Mason’s 1993 novel, Feather Crowns. Mason tells the story of Christianna Wheeler, a hardworking farm wife in rural Kentucky who gave birth to quintuplets in the year 1900. As word got out about the unusual event, hundreds of strangers descended on the homestead to gawk at the five tiny babies. One by one the babies died, victim to fever, insufficient milk, opium-laced soothing syrup, and being “handled too much” (B.A. Mason 1993:267). By hinting at the indignities that burial might invite, the new undertaker in town convinced the grieving Wheelers to have the bodies embalmed and sealed in a glass case. Several months later the Wheelers, desperate for cash, agreed to accompany the corpses on a carnival tour. They traveled from town to town through the South, enduring the stares of coldhearted curiosity seekers who paid a dime to witness their misfortune. One night, they stole away with the quints and boarded a train to Washington, where they donated the bodies to the Institute of Man, which kept, in Mason’s words, “a restricted collection, for research students and medical specialists” (B.A. Mason 1993:411). The morning after staying up late reading, I entered the National Museum of Health and Medicine in the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The public galleries of the museum, which had formerly been called the Army Four Inside the Embryo Production Factory Is the pathologist then so different from the poet, the composer or the painter who strives to solidify into art his secret delight? Richard Selzer Confessions of a Knife UC-Morgan-ToPress.indd 96 UC-Morgan-ToPress.indd 96 6/8/2009 1:49:08 PM 6/8/2009 1:49:08 PM 9 7 I n s i d e t h e P r o d u c t i o n F a c t o r y Medical Museum, have on display a superb collection of microscopes, skeletal lesions sustained by soldiers during the Civil War, and artifacts (including skull fragments) from Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. One gallery displays several fetal “monster” specimens and a series of fetal skeletons. The embryos I wanted to see were not on public display, so an intern at the front desk paged my guide. A few minutes later, a tall, laconic woman escorted me up the back stairs while I pondered how much space they must need to house ten-thousand-plus jars of formaldehyde. Imagine my confusion, then, when she ushered me into a large windowless room and pointed across rows of filing cabinets. “Here,” she said, “is the collection.” The embryo collection consisted, not of whole, wet-tissue specimens as I had imagined, but of sectioned specimens. Each embryo had been painstakingly cut into thin slices, or sections, each of which was stained and mounted on a slide for viewing through a microscope. The filing cabinets were filled with small wooden boxes, each containing dozens of glass slides. “Here are the saggitals, over here we have the coronals, and these are the transverse sections,” my guide explained. Because I was not trained as an anatomist, I struggled to keep up with the unfamiliar terminology. She pointed out a separate aisle of “comparative” (that is, nonhuman) embryo specimens, including guinea pigs, macaques, and opossums. The embryologists may have found it easy to see “life in a dead section” (Huber 1918:3), but I did not. I found all the information disorienting , especially in that windowless room on so little sleep, and by lunchtime I found myself looking forward to a break. I had arranged to eat lunch in the cafeteria with two anatomical curators for the museum. They asked about my project, and we got to talking about attitudes toward miscarriage and infant death in the late nineteenth century. Because I suffer the professorial tendency to answer every question with the title of a book, I urged them to read Feather Crowns and gave a quick plot summary. As I did, they exchanged a knowing glance across the table. “Would you like to see the quints?” one of them asked. It turned out that Mason had been inspired to write Feather Crowns by an event that had taken place across the field from where she grew up in Graves County, Kentucky. On...


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