Cushing’s tumor registry opens to the public

Photograph by Terry Dagradi.

A ribbon cutting in the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library heralds the opening of the new Cushing Center.
The Cushing Center, new home to the Cushing Tumor Registry, opened its doors to visitors during the annual reunion in June. Fifteen years in the making, the combined museum, archive, and seminar space, located two floors below ground within the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, is arguably as unique as the collection itself.

Named for 1891 Yale College graduate, Harvey Cushing, M.D., the father of modern neurosurgery, the Cushing Center houses more than the 400 jars of patients’ brains and tumors; it also houses a selection from Cushing’s book collection—thousands of first and second editions of every major medical and scientific text from the 11th century through the 18th—and a few of the many books penned by Cushing himself. A body of work whose artistic significance rivals its medical and historic significance, the exhibit also includes Cushing’s skillful surgical illustrations and dramatic black and white portraits of his patients.

To mark the opening of the Center, Cushing’s granddaughter, Kate Whitney, joined Dennis D. Spencer, M.D., HS ’77, chair and the Harvey and Kate Cushing Professor of Neurosurgery, and Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., Ensign Professor of Medicine, in a ribbon cutting ceremony in the library’s rotunda.

The exhibition area, quiet and lit low in warm gold reflected in the formalin-filled jars of brains, begins along an entry ramp. The 1,165-square-foot museum is asymmetrical, an effect enhanced by angular, wrap-around cabinets. A 270-square-foot seminar room is tucked at the back of the center.

Cushing, who returned to Yale from Harvard as Sterling Professor of Neuroscience in 1933, left his collection to the medical school upon his death in 1939 on the condition that a home would be made for it.  The brains and approximately 10,000 glass-plate negatives, from which the photographs in the exhibit were selected, remained in the basement of the medical school until the installation of the center.

The driving theme for the design of the new home was “fluidity,” said architect Turner Brooks, adjunct professor of architecture, M.Arch. ’70. Brooks likened the center’s entrance ramp to a stream, flowing into the pond of space below, through banks not of rocks, but brains. The folding cabinets, likened to folds of memory, reflect the “endless quest to understand the subject matter,” Brooks said at the dedication.

Not demanding the viewer’s direct attention, the brains sit above eye level on shelves just below the ceiling. Visitors are free to open drawers filled with journals, surgical instruments, and medical histories that together form a vivid depiction of Cushing’s lifelong achievements.

A glass case containing specimens separates the museum and the seminar room. “Where issues of modern neurosurgery are discussed, the historical brains are presented still, glowing out from the past through the window,” Brooks said.

Three other key players in the launch of the center spoke of their unique and intimate contact with the items in the collection, an intimacy that harkens back to Cushing’s contact with the brains. Terry Dagradi, a photographer and image specialist at the School of Medicine, selected and processed the photographs on display. She recalled the first image she processed, of a man in a robe with a shaved head that revealed a tumor.  Struck by the “emotional content” of the photograph, Dagradi knew the negatives contained a story that should be told.

Sarah Burge, medical library preservationist, selected the books for display in the Center and advised designers on the optimum environment for the preservation of the exhibit articles. Cushing, she said, is as iconic a figure to historical medical librarians as he is to neurosurgeons.

Nicole St. Pierre, forensics specialist, described in sharp detail the way in which she cleaned each brain and arranged it in the jar so the tumor was prominently displayed. At the pace of two to three brains per day, St. Pierre spent a year at work on this project in a small room off the morgue. “I reminded her the other day,” Spencer told alumni, “that she was the only person in history to share with Cushing each and every patient’s brain.

Earlier that day, in Harkness Auditorium, a reunion symposium on neuroscience at Yale kicked off the Cushing Center inaugural events: The Legacy of Harvey Cushing at Yale: Past and Future Perspectives. Sherwin B. Nuland, M.D. ’55, HS ’61, clinical professor of surgery, described the perfect storm of events that led Cushing to become the world leader in neurosurgery, particularly the hours of surgical practice he gained as an intern at Johns Hopkins when surgeon William Halsted, M.D., disappeared for days at a time due to his cocaine addiction. Michael Bliss, Ph.D., medical historian and author of Harvey Cushing: A Life in Surgery, detailed the case of Cushing’s most famous patient, Major General Leonard Wood. His tumor is on display at the Center, where neurosurgeons still marvel at Cushing’s technique, apparent in the perfectly spherical specimen.  Bringing together past and present, Gordon Shepherd, M.D., Ph.D., professor of neuroscience, gave a talk on “Neuroscience at Yale: from John Fulton to Patricia Goldman-Rakic.” John Krystal, M.D. ’84, HS ’88, the Robert L. McNeil Jr. Professor of Clinical Pharmacology and chair of the department of psychiatry, presented his research into new treatments for schizophrenia. Finally, Murat Gunel, M.D., Nixdorff-German Professor of Neurosurgery, drew a parallel between the past and future of neuroscience in his talk “From Cushing’s 1,000 Brain Tumor Surgeries to the 1,000 Genomes Project: The Impact of Two Revolutions in Neuroscience.”

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