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How a national treasure vanished

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Posted: Monday, May 13, 2013 12:27 pm

 As a high school kid, I had never seen anything like it.

The building had no windows. Doors were as thick as bank vaults. During the early 1960s, my father was chief of the dental and oral pathology division there.

Located on the grounds of Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C., the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology was an impressive place. Built in the 1950s, it was designed to resist the blast of an atomic bomb.

So why would our federal government go to such great expense by constructing a building with this degree of fortitude? What was inside that they wanted to protect and preserve?

At the time, the AFIP contained biomedical samples that had been collected for over 100 years. The institute received in excess of 50,000 requests annually for second opinions from pathologists located throughout the world. Some of the best-known experts in the medical field worked here.

It held a collection of 55 million glass slides and over 500,000 tissue samples. The AFIP was a repository like no other in the world and a resource unmatched for the benefit of everyone.

Founded in 1862 as the Army Medical Museum, one of its first artifacts was the bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln. As the institute grew in importance, it was renamed the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in 1949.

For many years, the AFIP had played an important role in health sciences, including the development of the typhoid vaccine. Its scientists helped establish proof that yellow fever was caused by a mosquito. During the 1990s, lung samples, held in vaults from soldiers killed by the 1918 flu pandemic, enabled researchers to discover why it was so deadly.

The AFIP’s world-renowned wound ballistics expert, Dr. Pierre Finck, was primarily responsible for the final conclusions regarding the Kennedy assassination in 1963. (Yes friends, the JFK movie really was more fiction than fact.)

But today, the structure stands empty, along with a number of other closed historical buildings on the old Walter Reed hospital grounds. The “new” Walter Reed is now the famous and former National Naval Medical Center - renamed “Walter Reed National Military Medical Center,” located in Bethesda, Md.

So, how could a national treasure like the AFIP disappear? It’s the same old story of government priorities for appropriations. Apparently, those who held the purse strings decided that closing the doors could save millions. In September 2005, that’s exactly what happened.

While some of the functions of the AFIP have been transferred to the Joint Pathology Center in Silver Spring, Md., it is only a fraction of what this great institution used to be. The worst part of all is that the thousands of civilian pathologists, who helped millions of their patients via this resource, will no longer have access.

Not only did my father work there, but I did as well. During my college years, I was a histology technician and contributed to the 31 million paraffin tissue sample blocks that had been collected for over 150 years. I saw first hand, the impressive work of this institute’s specialized staff.

My concluding commentary is simply this: It’s incredible how we can throw away billions on failed “green” projects, spend billions more on foreign aid to countries that despise us and duplicate job training with 47 different programs - all which have shown questionable results. But at the same time, an invaluable health care resource center, such as the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, is allowed to fade into history as a disassembled and forgotten relic.

It will be missed.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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