when I first learned of the Cushing Center at Yale’s whitney medical library in New Haven, all I could think of was the scene in Young Frankenstein when Igor breaks into the local brain depository to steal the preserved brain of “scientist and saint” Hans Delbrück, but instead mistakenly makes off with the gray matter of someone named “Abby Normal.” Except here, the great scientist is Dr. Harvey Cushing, 1891 Yale grad and “the father of modern neurosurgery,” and many of the over 400 human brains on display here, in fact, suffered from abnormalities.
Located in the library’s basement—where else would you keep a “brain museum”?—The Cushing Center was opened last June to showcase the ground-breaking career and work of the famed surgeon. A fourth-generation physician, Cushing was a pioneer of surgical practices such as monitoring blood pressure and pulse during an operation, and was renowned for his expertise in removing brain tumors. In addition to preserving and cataloguing tumors, he was able to get many of the patients he’d successfully operated on to donate their brains to science upon their deaths so the long-term effects of brain surgery could be studied. As a result, he was able to create an amazing collection.
“Cushing was building his collection from when he removed his first tumor in 1902, all the way through 1932,” says Terry Dagradi, a photographer and image specialist for the Yale School of Medicine; she became curator of the center after initially being brought in to make prints from the thousands of glass-plate negatives of photos that Cushing had made of his patients. “He kept meticulous records of every patient and specimen,” says Dagradi. “He wanted his collection to be a teaching tool—there was nothing like it at the time, and it was visited by aspiring neurosurgeons and physicians for many years.”
Considering its contents, the exhibition space, designed by architect Turner Brooks, is hauntingly beautiful: rows of dramatically lit specimen jars holding preserved brains ring the room, each jar itself a work of art. Fashioned from leaded glass (which will never get cloudy) and uniformly labeled “Cushing Tumor Registry” with the name, number and date the specimen was removed, each one is the original vessel for its specimen. (A few labels even have notes in Cushing’s own hand.) Stylish wood-and-glass display cases contain a variety of objects, from skulls and skeletons to vintage medical texts and a few of Cushing’s personal effects.
In many of the cases, there are drawers that can be opened. Inside you’ll find a treasure trove of historical items and medical paraphernalia collected by Cushing—diagrams, notes, antique medical tools, tiny skulls, bones, surgical equipment, acupuncture needles, test tubes . . . . If Cushing were around today, it might not be a surprise to see him on one of those “hoarder”-type TV shows. The good doctor was also a true Renaissance man—in addition to his medical work, he earned a Pulitzer Prize for a biography he authored of Sir William Osler (one of the founding fathers of modern medicine) and was an accomplished artist. A few of his deftly drawn anatomical illustrations and sketches of surgical techniques and operations are on display as well.
Still, it’s brains and the photos of patients that are the most compelling objects here, and it’s crazy to think that they had been sitting in a sub-basement at the medical school for decades after Cushing’s death in 1939 before they were “rediscovered.”
In 1994, medical student Christopher Wahl became interested in the collection after he and other students snuck into the sub-basement to “commune” with the brains and Cushing’s spirit. Wahl went to Dr. Dennis Spencer, now the Harvey and Kate Cushing Professor of Neurosurgery at Yale School of Medicine, with the hope that Spencer would mentor him while he wrote his thesis about Cushing’s collection; Spencer quickly realized the importance of what Wahl had brought to him and helped spearhead the effort to find a rightful place for it all. After a long search, the space in the Whitney Medical Library on Cedar Street was found.
Preparing the brains for exhibition, creating the exhibition and moving the collection took over five years and cost $1.5 million. A major undertaking was processing the patient photos—Terry Dagradi estimates she’s gone through only about 1,000 of the estimated 8,000 images that were with the brains in the old sub-basement. She refers to the photos as “jewel-like” and says she was inspired by Cushing’s pursuit of perfection to make the center something extraordinary.
“[The idea of a brain museum] can sound pretty gruesome and macabre,” says Dagradi. “But by having the remarkable images to go with the specimens, it’s allowed us to take interesting stories that had been scattered and bring them back together. It’s all another layer in the amazing legacy of Cushing.”
The Cushing Center is open during regular library hours; visitors need to go to the circulation desk to gain access. For more info, call (203) 737-4065 or visit med.yale.edu/library/about/cc.html.Brrraaaiiinnnsss ...