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A leather-bound diary, a young Harvey Cushing

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2002 - Autumn


Legendary neurosurgeon’s travel journal reveals a focused mind and an eye for detail.

During his weeklong trip to the World’s 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Harvey W. Cushing, M.D., took in a football game, had a ringside view of the “slaughtering of cattle and hogs” and was particularly intrigued by an exhibit of contemporary Egypt. He also saw the Buffalo Bill show and spent $2 on a hotel room.

Cushing’s detailed observations of his trip, made with his older brother Edward, are in a journal that is now in the collection of the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library. It was part of a recent acquisition that also included a journal of a trip to Bermuda and account books listing patients and fees paid to his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, physicians all.

At the time of his Chicago trip, Cushing, an 1891 graduate of Yale College, was 24 and ready to start his third year of medical school at Harvard. The Morocco-bound diary—in hasty, yet compact, pencilled script—offers his observations interspersed with whimsical sketches.

Much as a diary leads to introspection, the fair provided an opportunity for national self-assessment. The huge event attracted millions of visitors and “represented the Victorian era’s attempt both to acknowledge the reality of rapid change and to understand and control its direction,” according to Reid Badger, in The Great American Fair: The World’s Columbian Exposition and American Culture. The Chicago fair introduced the electric light bulb, alternating current and a huge Ferris wheel that accommodated more than 2,000 riders at a time. Professional congresses debated topics ranging from women’s suffrage to evolution to the necessity of a liberal education for students of medicine.

During his first day at the fair on September 13, 1893, Cushing visited the Women’s Building and an English exhibit featuring a hospital room. He noted the “typhoid dishes and pens … nurses’ dresses, instruments … colored glass for different solutions. Thermometer holder … operating jackets for patients. Operation suits of different kinds—which tie with ribbons down front, side, etc.” The diary suggests that he logged these ideas for future reference.

Cushing’s entry for Sunday, when the fair was opened to make it possible for laborers to attend on their only day off (despite protests from religious groups), is among the lengthiest for the week. He described three hours spent in art galleries and a walk through the Midway, a section devoted to anthropology and presentations of indigenous peoples from around the world. By then, Cushing was entrenched in the physician’s role and did not indulge in days of rest.

The diary reveals a broad range of interests and a fascination with art of all kinds. Cushing saved programs from concerts of European performers and wrote at length about a Japanese tea ceremony as well as an exhibit on forestry designed by Gifford Pinchot, an 1889 Yale College graduate who would go on to co-found Yale’s School of Forestry in 1900. Cushing was complimentary about exotic Bedouin dancers and an exhibit on the streets of Cairo.

The exposition, with elaborate architecture and organized streets that accommodated millions of visitors, inspired new respect for urban planning and beauty, according to Badger. Still, Cushing’s fine sketches, no larger than an inch or two, focus on people. Though the fair has since been criticized for stereotyping indigenous peoples as barbaric, his portraits reflect none of this.

The diary indirectly refers to the country’s growing obsession with material wealth and consumerism. Tucked into the diary is a newspaper clipping that expresses amazement at the exposition’s administrative building, with four pavilions, built of impermanent materials to last two years at a cost of $550,000. Meanwhile, Cushing diligently lists his own expenditures—for example, a 35-cent breakfast and a two-cent newspaper. The fair was costly: Cushing began with $91.84 and left with less than $4.

Cushing was careful with money, but perhaps even more cognizant of the value of time. Throughout his notes, he frequently expressed regret for not having more time to explore. He fretted about arriving at Buffalo Bill’s show too early, and toward the end of the week he wrote, “I am foolish enough to squander time on the football game.” (The Chicago Athletic Association trounced the New York Athletic Association, 6-0.)

The journals show the co-founder of Yale’s medical library as a quintessential learner. His detailed observations foreshadow his astute and meticulous notes on patient care and reveal a limitless Victorian curiosity about ideas, culture and technology.