Cushing Brain Collection
This past Saturday was the second annual Obscura Day, a sadly not-yet-recognized-by-the-government holiday dedicated to the exploration of strange and obscure sites and attractions. Organized by the folks over at Atlas Obscura, this great idea of an event involves small group tours and intimate get-togethers being set up all over the world for the single purpose of witnessing and experiencing the life less ordinary. This year, events were held in over 100 cities on all seven continents. That’s right. Even Antarctica.
This year, there were quite a few events scheduled in my local New England area for me to choose from, but it was a no-brainer which one I was going to attend. Or, more accurately, a 500-brainer.
The Cushing Brain Collection, also called the Cushing Tumor Registry, at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, CT, is exactly the type of oddity that I rely on sites like Atlas Obscura to tell me about. Dr. Harvey Cushing was a famous neurosurgery pioneer from the late 18th/early 19th centuries, who, like so many others in the medical profession, wanted to collect the wonders and mysteries of anatomy that fascinated him and with which he worked on a daily basis. In his particular case, having operated on the brains of thousands of patients, it was to that tumor-filled gray matter that his collection interests mainly focused. And the families of the patients whose lives he helped extend and whose pain he helped alleviate were often more than happy to donate these important pieces of their loved ones to his collection.
And that’s what our Obscura Day group was there to see.
There were about 20 of us in the group, and we were hosted by Josh Foer, one of the two founders of Atlas Obscura and author of the recently released Moonwalking with Einstein, a book that recounts his experience using his own brain to become the 2006 U.S. memory champion. The tour itself was conducted by Terry Dagradi, a Yale staff photographer who, as a result of being assigned to photograph the collection, became the curator as well.
Seriously, it was one of the most glorious, gorious sights I’ve ever seen. The brains were housed in softly lit square jars, closely set on long shelves built flush to the low ceiling and rimming the small room in single, double, and triple rows like some kind of macabre crown molding. As I stared up open-mouthed, I felt somewhat like L. Frank Baum’s scarecrow. You know, if I only had a brain…collection. At least I could have the next best thing…pictures of a brain collection. Of course, that’s when I whipped out my camera to discover that I’d left my memory card at home and that the camera’s internal memory holds only four pictures. So most of these are phone pics. The room isn’t this blurry in real life.
With their sepia-tinted liquids and ancient labels, the brains look more like the historical artifacts that they are than the medical specimens that they once were, exactly how you’d hope a century-old brain collection would look, in fact. Sometimes the jars contained entire specimens, sometimes just portions of specimens, and sometimes unrecognizable bits of tissue that you just had to trust the labels that identified them as brain specimens. Together, they form a golden tableau that surrounds visitors with a captivating and unique perspective on medicine and mortality.
Turns out, there’s a lot more to Cushing’s collection than just brain specimens. The collection also features thousands of pages of detailed records and compelling photographs of patients, personal artifacts from Cushing’s life, medical illustrations, rare books, and less classifiable items. For instance, in one small jar set apart from the rest was a piece of steak autographed with an electrosurgical knife by Ivan Pavlov himself, who had been fascinated by the implement after witnessing one of Cushing’s tumor removal operations.
Beneath those counters are large drawers that can be opened to reveal even more astounding artifacts. For instance, a collection of infant skulls and specimens illustrative of fetal development.
Over time the collection has also accreted objects from other doctor-collectors. One set of glass shelves included a range of animal skeletons and skulls, including these surprisingly beautiful pink-died rodent skeletons.
Even better, the Cushing Center is easily accessible and open to the public. The Yale School of Medicine can be found at 333 Cedar Street. From there, you just need to head to the library and then downstairs. You might need to ask for directions, but that’s fine, because unless you’re a Yale student with an electronic ID, you’ll need to ask the librarian for an access card to get in anyway.
So much thanks from the bottom of my own brainpan to Josh, Terry, and the whole Atlas Obscura team for making the event possible and successful.
And to everybody else, go see brains.