Cushing Brain Collection

April 13, 2010 – Besides being a favorite rallying cry of zombies and a major differentiator between humans and reality television show stars, brains are pretty awesome things for all kinds of reasons. Normally, these amazing organs are hidden beneath bone, skin, and hair, visible only to brain surgeons and psychos with blunt instruments. However, every once in a while, the rest of us get to see them fully exposed…or at least displayed in clear glass jars of murky fluid.

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.

Since many of the sites involved with Obscura Day aren’t always open to the public, the event is an excellent opportunity to visit places you might not be able to otherwise, not to mention being a singular chance to interact with like-minded weirdos whose curiosity for the odd and outré goes far beyond mere Wikipedia browsing.

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 19th/early 20th 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.

Eventually, of course, Cushing died and left his inheritor in the awkward situation of what to do with hundreds of brains. That inheritor was the Yale School of Medicine, and at first they just stored them on metal shelves in a dingy basement, where they languished in obscurity. As of June of last year, however, much of his collection has been restored and relocated to a beautiful, custom-built exhibit room called the Cushing Center.

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.

After providing a brief introduction to what we were about to see (brains, I mentioned that, right?), Terry led us through the Yale School of Medicine building to the library, where we took a set of stairs beneath a large image of Cushing and one of his patients, an outsized man suffering from a gigantism-producing disease of the pituitary gland called acromegaly. The stairs wound down past a horizontal glass case featuring a similarly afflicted adult human skeleton (at which few of us stopped, a testament to our expectation level of what was to come) and ended at a nondescript glass door revealing nothing but a darkened room on the other side. Terry swiped her badge and opened the door, triggering the motion-activated lights and dramatically revealing hundreds of jars full of human memory meat.

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.

The room is relatively small (although our entire group fit with plenty of space to both wander and wonder), but it’s extremely well-designed to make excellent use of the available space and to ensure a comfortable, inviting, and aesthetically pleasing experience for visitors. Wood predominates, with floating glass shelves that curve down a short descending entry ramp leading to an open space lined with cabinets, drawers, and exhibit cases full of medically morbid treasures.

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.

Instead of a structured (and constraining) tour, Terry let us wander about at our leisure, making herself available to answer questions or allowing us to sporadically gather around her as she pointed out some random bit of interest in a collection absolutely brimming with it.

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.

On display in a series of recessed glass exhibit cases set into a wooden counter that wraps around the room beneath the shelves of brains is a set of rare books, including a first-edition Copernicus, a handwritten copy of the work of Aristotle dating from the 1200s, and other volumes that only get second billing because they share an exhibit with human brains.

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.

Still, the stars of this collection are the brains, and I realize I’ve used a lot of superlatives in describing them in this article, and (full disclosure) even though the brain in my head that is controlling my word choice might be a bit biased toward its fellow organs in general, it really was an awe-inspiring collection exquisitely displayed.

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.