Yale’s brain trust: School of Medicine restores collection

0915_brains_photo1_P
Photo by Sarah Sullivan.

Harvey Cushing, a member of the Yale College class of 1891, first removed a tumor from the brain of a blacksmith in 1919. Over the next 11 years, Cushing operated on this patient 10 more times, removing tumors weighing in total as much as an adult brain.

“Cushing really cared about his results and his patients,” said University photographer Terry Dagradi, the collection’s curator. “He would study people from circuses to see what was wrong with them, not to laugh at them.”
“Cushing really cared about his results and his patients,” said University photographer Terry Dagradi, the collection’s curator. “He would study people from circuses to see what was wrong with them, not to laugh at them.”

These tumors, along with relics from hundreds of similar stories, are now preserved in formaldehyde and are on display as part of the new, climate-controlled Cushing Center, located below the main level of the Yale School of Medicine Library on Cedar Street. The center, which opened in June, marks the culmination of a $1.4 million project to save more than 500 brains, which were languishing in the sub-basement of the School of Medicine’s dormitories, collection curator and University photographer Terry Dagradi said.

Cushing and his colleague Louise Eisenhardt, another famous neuroscientist from the first half of the 20th century, established the collection at Yale for both research and educational purposes, Dagradi said. But in 1979, space and financial constraints forced the collection into the sub-basement. In the 1990s, medical students who snuck into the brains’ storage room — the “Brain Society” — were the collection’s primary visitors, she added.

But by the time Christopher Wahl MED ’96 decided to write his graduate thesis on the collection, some brains had dried up and nearly all of Cushing’s film records had been destroyed. The brains’ plight caught the attention of Dennis Spencer, the chair of the neurosurgery department, Dagradi said. To save the brains from permanent obscurity, more than 500 jars had to be cleaned, photographed, refilled with formaldehyde and relabeled, with great attention given to preserving Cushing’s careful system of identifying specimens by patient name, year treated and diagnosis, she said.

“Cushing really cared about his results and his patients,” Dagradi said. “He would study people from circuses to see what was wrong with them, not to laugh at them.”

She noted that having such a large number of patients donate their brains to Cushing was a sign of his devotion to his craft and his close relationships with his patients.

In addition to the brains, 10,000 of Cushing’s original glass plate images documenting the patients were salvaged. Together with Cushing’s written records and sketches from his time at Harvard’s Peter Brent Brigham Hospital, these images offer an insight into Cushing’s research methods as a pioneer of neurosurgery.

Most brain collections in the 19th and early 20th centuries featured intact specimens, with researchers focusing primarily on brain mass and surface wrinkles, Dagradi said. But Cushing’s brains are sliced into layers, reflecting his desire to gain deeper insight into previously misunderstood afflictions such as pituitary gland tumors.

“[Surgeons] didn’t have the tools we have now. There was no imaging before,” said David Hafler, chair of the neurology department. “They relied on highly developed senses and clinical skills.”

The collection also reflects how far neurosurgery has come from Cushing’s time, he added. Certain brains in the collection feature advanced cases of certain diseases that are now treated much sooner due to improved imaging technology, Hafler said.

History of science and medicine professor Bruno Strasser said Cushing’s and similar medical collections have allowed researchers to find patterns and create classification systems for many diseases.

“We tend to think of collections and museums as old stuff or places for amusement, but they have been central places for producing knowledge about the living world,” Strasser said. “This way of producing knowledge may seem very archaic, but, at the same time, [medical] collections are becoming more and more important because we are digitizing them.”

The relocation of the Cushing collection was funded by his descendants, the Hanna Fund for the collection and other donors.

Comments