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Sunday, August 29th 2010

Harvey Cushing’s Collection

If a single characteristic makes a good surgeon, or physician in general, I think it is meticulousness. An astute observer, who pays careful attention to the details of a patient’s symptoms, to an operation, to a diagnosis.

Such might be the best short description of Harvey Cushing. His meticulousness extended to the documentation of the care he provided. And his collection at Yale University. The Cushing Center has been recently endowed and set up, displaying Cushing’s incredible collection of gross specimens, anatomical drawings and medical records.

In June 2010, after a colossal effort to clean and organize the material — 500 of 650 jars have been restored — the brains found their final resting place behind glass cases around the perimeter of the Cushing Center, a room designed solely for them.

These chunks of brains floating in formaldehyde bring to life a dramatic chapter in American medical history. They exemplify the rise of neurosurgery and the evolution of 20th-century American medicine — from a slipshod trial-and-error trade to a prominent, highly organized profession.

These patients had operations during the early days of brain surgery, when doctors had no imaging tools to locate a tumor or proper lighting to illuminate the surgical field; when anesthesia was rudimentary and sometimes not used at all; when antibiotics did not exist to fend off potential infections. Some patients survived the procedure — more often if Dr. Cushing was by their side.

Dr. Cushing was an incredible figure. Few specialties within medicine can so articulatly draw their origins to a single, or group of figures, as neurosurgery can to Harvey Cushing. Michael Bliss’ Harvey Cushing has become a kind’ve definitive biography and well worth the read if you have any interest in the history of medicine. And a visit to the Cushing Center is probably well worth the trip.