KESSLER: Visiting Yale’s brain collection

Bucket List

It’s in large part thanks to Harvey Cushing that Yale possesses more brains than Harvard. After graduating from Yale in 1891, Cushing, the “father of modern neurosurgery,” headed to Harvard for medical school. He did a stint at John Hopkins University, where, in 1902, the pathology department claimed to have misplaced a pituitary cyst he was studying. Enraged, Cushing vowed that he would henceforth keep track of all his own brain specimens.

Three decades and over 2,000 tumor operations later, Cushing returned to Yale, serving as Sterling Professor of Neurology. He offered his collection of approximately 600 jarred specimens to Harvard, but when the university dawdled, Cushing brought his brains back to New Haven.

Those jars of formaldehyde — together with copious records, detailed drawings, glass plate negatives and a collection of historically significant medical books — remained at Yale upon Cushing’s death in 1939. And for about 30 years, young neurosurgeons studied his specimens housed in a sub-basement of Brady Memorial Laboratory. But by 1979, no one paid much attention to the jars. The collection was locked in a room near a fall-out shelter in the basement of Harkness Hall and forgotten. Kind of.

By the mid 1990s medical students had discovered the collection and, in typical Yale fashion, created a rite of passage and a society around sneaking into it, a process that apparently required removing door panels and picking locks. Those who entered signed a poster-board emblazoned with the words “The Yale Medical School Brain Society” and instructions to “Leave Only Your Name, Take Only Memories.” Mike “Hippocampus” Schlosser, Prem “Queen Amygdala” Bhat, or José “Hole in the Head” Prince, they scrawled. In 1996, Christopher Wahl ’96 MD — among the first to rediscover the room after a night of drinking at Mory’s in 1991 — got permission to write his MD thesis on Cushing’s Brain Tumor Registry.

I was sober when I went to see Cushing’s brains (a good thing, considering it was 10 a.m.). I did not crawl through any steam tunnels, duck under pipes, remove door panels or pick locks. I didn’t even get to sign my name on the Brain Society poster. (I think I would have gone with Zara “Medulla Oblongata” Kessler.)

Instead, I climbed down two flights of stairs in the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library to the Cushing Center, accompanied by Education Services Librarian Jan Glover, who agreed to give me a tour. I signed my name in a guest book.

Beginning in the late 90s with the renewed interest in Cushing’s brains, Yale began to explore potential homes for the collection, and in 2008, the sub-basement of the Medical library was chosen. Soon thereafter, a forensic scientist cleaned the jars, replaced the formaldehyde, moving the brains, two-by-two in individual buckets (accompanied by Yale’s Environmental Health and Safety team) from Harkness to the Pathology lab. In June 2010, the Cushing Center opened.

There are about 400 jars of brains, still bearing their original labels and tags, in cases along the shelves of the center. The lighting is a bit eerie, and I imagine visiting the spheres of wrinkles might not make the best solo expedition. Underneath the glowing orbs are some highlights of Cushing’s book collection: a 13th century manuscript containing writings by Aristotle, a first edition of Andreas Vesalius’ Humani Corporis Fabrica, a first edition of Nicolaus Copernicus’ “On the revolutions of the heavenly spheres” with a note scribbled in the margin by Edwin Hubble of telescope fame.

My favorite non-cranial jar is a tiny one in a display devoted to Cushing’s life. It sits next to a photograph of Cushing and Ivan Pavlov. The two met at the 13th International Physiological Congress in Boston in 1929. Cushing invited an interested Pavlov to come see him do surgery with an electrosurgical knife. Pavlov was so fascinated by the tool that Cushing decided to call down to the hospital kitchen for a piece of liver so Pavlov could play around with the knife. Pavlov used the tool to sign his name in the meat. Cushing, not surprisingly, preserved the liver in the little jar on display. It’s a pretty historic piece of meat (and unlike during my venture to Louis’ Lunch, this time I didn’t even have to eat it).

So yes, since June 2010, going to the Brain Room has become a bit more mainstream of a Bucket List activity. But I’d say swallow your pride and go in to look at some of Yale’s most distinguished brains. Of course, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll realize that there are about 600 jars in the collection, and about 400 are on display. The other 200? Glover and a couple of others who work at the Center say they think that they’re still in the basement of Harkness.

Zara Kessler is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at zara.kessler@yale.edu.

Comments

  • GeoJoe

    Wow! Very informative — thanks for writing about such a cool topic. And here’s another em-dash: —.

  • SY

    There was a front page WSJ article on the Yale brains and steam tunnels in the 90’s. That article made the discovery more dramatic than a night after Mory’s. It may have been written by or about the ’96 med student or thesis. I think it said something about
    Branford; the med student could have been an undergrad in 1991. Thanks for clearing up the mystery, and good research.