A curious thing about medical collections is how dehumanizing they can be. Skeletons anonymously articulated in glass cases, fetuses hovering in jars, cancerous growths carved out of flesh for disembodied study. These archives of life and abnormalities were for scientific research, narrowing down a condition to its infected parts. However, as medical collections transform into historic objects, it’s a necessary challenge to restore the stories behind how bits of life ended up preserved long after a medically painful life. At Yale University, the Cushing Center balances the medical significance of over 400 brains in glass jars with the presence of the patients and doctor behind them.
I visited the Cushing Center last weekend as part of an Atlas Obscura tour with Terry Dagradi, curator of the subterranean space below Yale’s medical library. The Cushing Center with its curving ramp that descends past rows of jars glowing amber with whole or parts of brains is a sharp change from the specimens’ previous home — a forgotten basement beneath a Yale dormitory.
How the brains went from a treasured resource for understanding malignant tumors, to a forgotten oddity snuck into by first-year medical students as a rite of passage in the 1990s, to a thoughtful gallery space open to the public in June of 2010 is as much the story of neurology in the 20th century. When Harvey Cushing graduated from Yale in 1891, brain surgery was practically a death sentence, and a messy, tortuous one at that. There was no imaging, no proper lighting, no deeper understanding of just what you were slicing into in the grey matter. Cushing, however, was meticulous in his documentation of cases, brazen in the belief a frequently fatal surgery could be improved, and devoutly devoted to his patients.
As medical historian Michael Bliss wrote in Harvey Cushing: A Life in Surgery, “In the first decade of the 20th century, Harvey Cushing became the father of effective neurosurgery. Ineffective neurosurgery had many fathers.” However, his bull-headed determination could make for a difficult coworker, as a Baltimore colleague wrote: “Not many men down here liked him. He rode roughshod over them and was ruthless. […] Tough hombre. Yeah, but one of America’s immortals.” Cushing started with a 20 percent surgical survival rate; he ended with 90.
The Cushing Center holds the Cushing Tumor Registry. Voluntarily donated by patients with Cushing’s assurance that although they may be able to be saved, their condition could help others, it’s a moving experience. Paul Shin wrote in “Harvey Cushing’s Ghosts: Death and Hauntings in Modern Medicine” in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine: “The systematic order of the Cushing Tumor Registry ― its labels, the now irreplaceable jars ― stand as a metaphor for the medical modernity wrought by Cushing’s meticulous handiwork in and out of the operating room.”
Even if you have no knowledge of this neurological history, it’s still haunting to view the detached organs of what once held a human’s thoughts, pain, and personality. The Cushing Center is set up like a wunderkammer with drawers you can open to reveal medical history objects or items from Cushing’s life, the basement-level space designed by Turner Brooks Architects of New Haven. With a modern feel, it still has a sense of wonder and discovery that must have been felt by those students sneaking in to see the brains forgotten in the basement after Cushing’s death in 1939.
I’ve been to quite a few medical museums, from tiny, obscure holdings like the Musée Dupuytren in Paris with its shocking abnormalities to prominent places like the Mütter in Philadelphia, but the Cushing Center is where I’ve most felt the patient present. Right below the brains are photographs of them, some young girls with braids and bows in their hair while they rest with wary eyes in hospital beds, others adults whose skulls are grotesquely contorted by the types of deforming brain tumors that — with much thanks to Cushing — are rarely seen anymore. Right outside the Cushing Center is a huge banner showing Cushing in the 1930s with one of his patients, a man in his 20s with acromegaly, a gigantism condition that caused the man to grow beyond normal proportions. Cushing gently holds the man’s fingers as he positions him for the photograph, a small sign of his hands-on approach to treating people previously considered doomed.
It’s one of the thousands of glass plate and film negatives of the patients found with the brains, which Dagradi is still working to go through and digitize. They keep the medical specimens from severing again from the lives gripped by the tumors still gnawed into the brains hovering in the lines of jars.
The Cushing Center is open to the public at the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library at Yale University (Sterling Hall of Medicine, 333 Cedar Street, New Haven, Connecticut).