Brain Trust

I f you’re near the Yale Medical School Library and have a few moments, you might consider a trip to see the brains.

Yes, actual brains, about 450 of them, in clear glass jars, carefully identified with typewritten labels and placed side by side in display cases lining the walls of a room, the Cushing Center, in the subbasement of the library, where they’re preserved in formaldehyde.

Low lighting—which helps preserve the treasures within, including 22 “discovery drawers” of rare medical texts, skeletons and other curiosities—gives the space a golden glow, and despite the strange contents in this mini museum, the effect is a warm, not eerie, sight. The public is welcome during extensive visiting hours and during tours held on Wednesdays at 11 a.m. and Thursdays at 2 p.m.; Yale-affiliated individuals can enter with their ID, and others can obtain a pass from the information desk at the library.

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The collection reflects the work of a pioneer in brain research and one of the school’s most influential graduates and professors, Dr. Harvey Cushing, often referred to as the “father of modern neurosurgery.” The diseased brains he studied, along with the accompanying evocative, black and white patient photographs housed there, comprise the Cushing Brain Tumor Registry.

Before they came to rest in their polished new environs at the library in 2010, Cushing’s specimens enjoyed an extended stay in the basement of a med school dorm that began in the 1960s, where their presence yielded more of a giddy fear factor than reverence. For years, daring med students made treks to visit “the brains” in the dimly lit basement as a rite of passage, signing their names on poster board and becoming members of the “Brain Society.”

In 1895, Cushing, who graduated from Yale College in 1891, graduated Harvard Medical School, where he became obsessed by brain tumors and other disorders. After further training, including at Johns Hopkins, he began his career in neurosurgery in 1899.

His unusual collection began in earnest when the Pathology Department at JHU misplaced a pituitary cyst removed by Cushing from patient Mary Donnelly. Deeply troubled by the mistake, Cushing began his own collection of the very brains you can see in the Cushing Center today. When he traveled back to Boston to become surgeon-in-chief at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, he continued collecting brains from patients postmortem, eventually amassing 650 specimens (roughly 200 of which are currently being re-preserved and processed, not yet on display).

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The brains were transferred to Yale when Cushing returned to teach in 1933 as the Sterling Professor of Medicine in Neurology. First housed in the basement of Yale Hospital, space constraints necessitated a move to the Harkness dormitory basement as a temporary solution.

“These brains were saved not to show what the brain looked like, but what the disease looked like,” explains Terry Dagradi, the Center’s curator, who gives tours of the facility twice a week and by appointment. Her statement explains why many of the brains have been dissected or are misshapen due to the nature of their disease.

It was a different time in medicine, she says of the period when Cushing, who died in 1939, was researching. Neurosurgery was in its earliest stages, and patients often didn’t make it. But at the time, Cushing was “your best chance of survival,” she explains.

The medical landscape, of course, changed radically throughout the century; while the brains were initially seen as a valuable learning tool, the latter 1900s yielded far superior texts and models. “By the 1960s,” says Dagradi, “it really was a bunch of old brains in jars.” (Which, at least while at Harkness, gave those med students a bit of a thrill.)

Such an incredible collection, however, was bound to resurface. In 1996, medical student Christopher Wahl took an interest in the brains and stunning photography of Cushing’s patients, writing his thesis on the collection. His project prompted a renewed interest in Cushing’s legacy and a push to find a permanent home for the collection.

The Cushing Center, which opened in 2010, is a testament to the doctor, who, beyond all his cutting-edge research, was known for maintaining incredibly close and friendly relationships with his patients and their families, often staying in contact with them for the rest of their lives.

Some of them still hang out together, and you’re invited.

The Cushing Center
Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library
333 Cedar Street, New Haven (map)
Mon–Fri 8am–8pm, Sat 10am-7pm, Sun 9:30am-8pm

Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.

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Cara McDonough has been a journalist for over ten years. She writes regularly about family, parenting, religion and other issues for The Huffington Post and chronicles daily life on her personal blog. She lives in New Haven with her husband, two children and two dogs.

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