The Search for the Cushing Brains
With the neurosurgeon’s collection on display, a trip to the “brain room” and a rite of passage are no more.
By now the story of Harvey Cushing’s brains is well-known. When the neurosurgeon died in 1939, he left his brain tumor collection, patient registry, and glass plate photos to Yale, his undergraduate alma mater. For decades the 650 jars of brain specimens sat abandoned and ignored in the basement of Harkness Hall. Dripping limestone walls were the only companions for Cushing’s malignant tumors and detailed photographs, a collection he had begun building in 1902. After years of neglect, the collection went on public display in the Cushing Center in the basement of the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library in 2010.
Before the brains’ removal from the basement of Harkness, Yale employees found a large white poster board on the floor. “Leave Only Your Name. Take Only Your Memories” was scrawled on top of the board; underneath were the signatures, doodles, and “we were here” markings of several generations of Yale medical students who had ducked under dusty pipes and stumbled across abandoned anatomy dummies in the recesses below their dormitory to find the brain collection.
The public unveiling of the Cushing brains marked the end of an era. For decades, students who visited the brains were privy to a pilgrimage and rite of passage. Though the brains weren’t hidden per se, they were obscured in a faraway room, and the trip wasn’t exactly condoned by the school. “We tried to keep students out with locks and reinforced wooden panels,” explained Terry Dagradi, a Yale photographer who has curated Cushing’s photographs. “No matter what we did, the students found a way to get down there and into the brains.”
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m inhaling diseased brain matter,’ ” said Jessica Bod, a fifth-year student who was among the last to see Cushing’s brains in their basement tomb. She had “bid on an adventure” with classmate Sascha Qian during the Hunger and Homelessness Auction in 2008. The adventure brought her into the bowels of Harkness, where entry into the brain room required removing a panel in the door and crawling through.
“It was definitely creepy, and I remember whoever went first had to lead in the dark,” said Bod. “I hadn’t realized the brains were actually under the dorm. It was very ‘Harry Potter.’ ”
Antony F. Chu, M.D. ’02, visited the basement a few times as a student. He had a job in the audiovisual department, which meant he also had a set of keys that could open a number of Harkness doors. Visiting the brains, he said, was a bonding—and inspiring—activity. No one had exact directions to the “brain room,” so each new group of students had to forge its own path.
“I’ll never forget the shadows of the brains on the walls,” said Chu, who described the experience as one born of curiosity and wonder. Nobody (to his knowledge) ever tried to remove or damage the brains. “There was such a sense of something bigger and greater in that brain room.”
Dagradi felt that same sense of otherness the first time she entered the room. Her feelings intensified after she began to print some of Cushing’s 10,000 glass plate photographs. “There are these really detailed and touching portraits of children, girls with big bows in their hair,” said Dagradi. “The photos really had an impact on me.”
Though Bod is glad that the brains are well-preserved, she feels nostalgic for their former basement home. “Going to find the brains was like standing on the seal of the library or the second-year show, a tradition that made the School of Medicine,” said Bod. “Future students won’t have that.”
Do you have a memory of a nocturnal jaunt to the Cushing brains that you’d like to share? If so, please write to Terry Dagradi, firstname.lastname@example.org, and tell us about your visit to the basement of Harkness.