The Damned Story: Dr. Harvey Cushing was the acclaimed “Father of Modern Neurosurgery,” an 1891 Yale graduate and brilliant physician. In addition to pioneering critical surgical techniques, such as using X-rays to diagnose brain tumors and monitoring blood pressure during operations, he also created one of the most unique medical teaching tools ever assembled, featuring the donated brains of hundreds of his patients. This collection is now on permanent display at the Cushing Center at Yale’s Whitney Medical Library.
That’s right — it’s a brain museum.
Okay, let’s get it out of the way: The brains of Hans Delbruck, scientist and saint, are not here, although many of the 400+ specimens here could be called “Abby Normal” — the reason they were a patient of Dr. Cushing’s in the first place was because there was some sort of abnormality. Ever the diligent researcher, Cushing stayed in contact with those he successfully operated on and was able to convince many to give their gray matter to science when they were done with it so the long-term effects of brain surgery could be studied. He also kept many of the tumors and other masses he removed from patients for observation, placing them in leaded glass jars as he did with the donated brains, all of which was meticulously cataloged and labeled.
Cushing also had glass-plate photographs made of his patients, another groundbreaking practice in the development of neurosurgery.
For years, Cushing’s collection was studied by medical students and aspiring neurosurgeons. After Cushing’s death in 1939, the collection was donated to the Yale Medical School, where it was stored in a sub-basement for decades. In the mid-1990s, a medical student — who, with other students, had been sneaking in to “commune” with the brains and Cushing’s spirit — went to the medical school and asked to do his thesis on the collection.
Rediscovered, it was decided that the entire collection, still in its original jars and with the patient photographs, should be displayed. Careful restoration was undertaken, although it turned out that the original specimen jars were ideal (the leaded glass will never get cloudy), so they only needed to be cleaned. (The original “Cushing Tumor Registry” labels are also in place, some of which have notes added by Cushing himself.) Five years and $1.5 million later, the Cushing Center officially opened to the public in June 2010.
For the record, Cushing was a true Renaissance man — in addition to being a teaching and practicing surgeon, he was a talented artist, who deftly sketched surgical procedures and anatomical figures. He served during World War I and also was an exceptional writer, authoring medical texts and even scoring the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for a biography he penned on Sir William Osler, one of the fathers of modern medicine. (Yeah, what have you done today?)
In addition to the brains and other specimens, some of Dr. Cushing’s personal items are on display including a lab coat, family photos and journals. There’s also a small conference room in the center.
Our Damned Experience: We got to visit the Cushing Center in January 2011, and were duly impressed. As you might expect, it is located on the lower level of the library, because where else would put a brain museum but in the basement?
Considering it’s essentially a room full of brains in glass jars, which might be creepy for some people, the space, designed by Turner Brooks, is hauntingly beautiful. The majority of the specimens ring the center in dramatically lit glass cases, making photography particularly challenging. (Yeah, it’s all the glass display cases, reflections and lighting that hampered my pictures, which you can see in the gallery below — not the glaring lack of photography skills!) Speaking of images, the photographs of Cushing’s patients are particularly compelling; according to the center”s curator, Terry Dagradi, there are thousands of glass-plate negatives, only a fraction of which have been developed to date.
Also interesting are the hundreds of vintage medical texts, tools and paraphernalia collected by the good doctor. Apparently, if he were alive today, Cushing might be a candidate for an episode of “Hoarders.”
Make sure to take time to open all the drawers that start at the bottom of the entrance ramp — they are a treasure trove, stocked with books, drawings and all sorts of odd goodies, from random bones and specimen slides to test tubes and acupuncture needles to medical diagrams sketched by Cushing himself.
The Cushing Center is not a particularly big place, so although there’s all sort of neat things to see, don’t plan on making a day of it.
And no, we did not observe any zombies hanging around looking for a well-aged snack. Nor is there a sign that says, “After 5 p.m. slip brains through slot in door.”
If You Go: The Cushing Center is located in the Whitney Medical Library of Yale Medical School at 333 Cedar Street in New Haven. It is open free of charge to the public, although visitors must check in at the Circulation Desk to get a Yale Proximity ID card and access to the collection. Check the website for specific hours and holiday closures.