Yale prides itself on intellect, but sometimes it takes something more to recognize the University’s brainpower. And by “something more,” I obviously mean more than 400 human brains and tumors preserved in glass jars. For those especially cerebral days, the Cushing Center in the Medical School’s Medical Library packs just the right neural punch.
Opened in 2010, the Center is dedicated to the memory of Harvey Cushing 1891, a Yale Medical School professor known widely as the father of modern neurosurgery. A display case in the Center reveals he essentially did everything … ever. A black-and-white photo depicts him back flipping off a building’s stoop at Yale, another shows him as captain of Yale’s baseball team, various pictures are of him with young patients (evidently he was stern with students and colleagues but compassionate with and beloved by his patients), and a plaque describes his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Sir William Osler. So I guess Harvey Cushing is kind of worth looking into.
Otherwise, Cushing’s collection of brains donated to Yale after his death should be able to maintain your attention. The eerie gray forms submerged in jars of formaldehyde of every yellow hue come from Cushing’s patients, with Cushing collecting them to improve understanding of the mind and our ability to operate on it (the real scary part is the concept of nascent neurosurgery — think less anesthesia, less scalpel accuracy, and less truth to “everything will be okay”). If you’re a little faint of heart, the collection might not be for you, especially since the walls below the brains are lined with pictures of the patients themselves. Although none of the pictures are exceedingly ghastly, the various incisions and head deformities can be disconcerting. The fact that the contents of these patients’ heads are floating a few feet above you in states ranging from fully intact to sliced into pieces probably doesn’t help. Consider this a good “should-I-be-premed” test.
But for those who can handle it, the Center is fascinating. Drawers below the counters surrounding the room can be pulled out to reveal other parts of Cushing’s extensive scientific collection; I found historical Chinese medical implements and a picture of Dr. Cushing operating on the 2,000th verified brain tumor in 1926. Inset in the counters are interesting books as well, like a book of medical illustrations from sixteenth-century Paris. A computer in the Center can also be used to watch two videos on Cushing and brain surgery from the 1940s — listening to “The Story of Brain Surgery” (1945) is enlightening, and the overwrought music keeps you on your toes.
On the whole I enjoyed my visit, though as I wandered the Medical Library (which is worth a stroll) I decided that for most people, I wouldn’t advise going alone; the ratio of brains in jars to brains in heads is just a little too high. But otherwise, keep an open mind. With more than 400 people opening theirs for you, it’s the least you can do.