“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.”J. W. Ocker, at Obscura Day 2011
Hundreds of gently lit jars holding tumor-ridden brains line the walls of the Cushing Brain Collection, assembled by the pioneering neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing in the early 20th century. With more than 400 jars on display, and another 150 or so awaiting preservation, the collection now resides in a custom built room two floors below Yale’s medical school library.
In life, Dr. Harvey Cushing was not only an award winning surgeon, but also a Pulizer Prize winning author, WWI veteran, and gifted artist. His academic and professional life was dedicated to studying the brain, and developing new and radical diagnosis and surgical techniques to help patients suffering from debilitating and often lethal brain tumors.
The collection was donated to Yale in 1939 after Cushing’s death, but was only installed in the new custom exhibit space in 2010 after decades in storage. Originally scattered throughout the University, by the 1960s the collection had fallen into disrepair. Students in the 1990s formed a kind of fan club, venturing into the basement where the collection had been moved to add their names to a poster. Finally, funds were raised to establish the new, dedicated space to house the collection.
The collection also includes artifacts from Cushing’s life and medical career, a piece of steak signed using an electrosurgical knife by Ivan Pavlov, and drawers full of infant skulls. Nearby a collection of rare, historic medical books includes works by Copernicus and a handwritten edition of the works of Aristotle from the 13th century.
Know Before You Go
The Medical Library is located just off the central rotunda in the Yale University School of Medicine Building. Bring your ID! You have to give them your ID and then they will give you a pass to enter the building. Once you enter the building, go to the Circulation Desk near the library and you have to get another pass to go to the basement.
Update 2017: The requirements for being escorted may have changed. We were allowed to go down alone although the woman at the desk says she usually gives tours. Upon entering the room, immediately look to your left. There are stacks of activity sheets (meant for school children) but include a scavenger hunt which was rather fun. There are also free post cards from the exhibit. Make sure to open drawers. Most of the drawers are part of the exhibit and contain interesting artifacts.