Brain Museum Is Spooky Yet Stimulating 

A Collection Of Brains Is Fitting For This Month's Holiday, But The Cushing Center Of New Haven Is Not Just A Fictional Fright Story   

It's a haunting image. Large yet empty eyes, void of emotion, stare straight up into the camera. Her frail body is covered in a large, wool blanket, the pain on her face hard to disguise. A large hand is on her shoulder, and it's hard to say if the hand is comforting the sick girl in what could possibly be her final moment of life, or if it's simply holding her in place for a better photograph to put into his collection.

It's one of 15,000 photographs of brain cancer patients at the Cushing Center. The black and white photos document pre- and post-operation patients of Harvey Cushing, the father of modern neurosurgery. The photographs are part of the Cushing Center, which also includes medical instruments, rare books, artifacts from Cushing's life and 450 brains – Cushing's life work.

People visiting Yale's medical library in New Haven can make their way down into a sub-basement into a dimmed room that's not much larger than 40 by 40. Guests enter through a curving, sloped entrance into the lobe-shaped museum, surrounded by discovery drawers, photo albums and – of course – brains up the ceiling, floating above the countertops on multi-layered shelves.

One of the most famous brains in the collection is from General Leonard Wood, a physician and Rough Rider who fought against Geronimo. The decorated veteran developed symptoms of someone with a meningioma tumor, and the only person willing to perform the necessary surgery in 1910 – when the procedure was dangerous and new - was Cushing.

Fortunately, Wood survived the surgery. He went on to become an ambassador to Cuba. He fought in the Philipines. He even ran for president. But 17 years later, he developed a second tumor.

“At this point, Cushing was at a much higher level in his career and his success rate was quite high,” said Coordinator Terry Dagradi. “But something went wrong during the operation. Part of the cause was Cushing taking a shortcut, maybe out of his own confidence or because Leonard had told him he wanted it all done within one day. But he ended up with major hemorrhaging and died a couple of hours later.

His two tumors are in a jar at the Cushing Center, along with his brain.

While many people and organizations preserved brains in that day and age, Cushing was one of the first to keep them for informational purposes, to educate not only himself but the public. In order to advance the positive

outcome of his patients, Cushing would save tumor specimens to examine, observe and categorize, as well as brains of patients who passed away between 1900 and 1933, a time when the knowledge was very limited. X-rays were the highest tech at the time, said Dagradi, and those didn't give doctors a lot of information about the actual tumor.

“He was piecing together all his bits of knowledge to try to figure out why tumors were ocurring, but sometimes even that wasn't enough,” she explained. “So afterwards, keeping the brains would give more information the next time around. He was writing the book - 'mapping the brain' he'd say – and left it as a legacy.”

While the 450 brains are “the hook,” the Cushing Center is “so much more.” There is more to Cushing's story – more to his accomplishments as a researcher.

Cushing was born in 1869 in Cleveland, Ohio. He graduated from Yale University in 1891 and studied medicine at Harvard Medical School, receiving his medical degree in 1895. By 1899, Cushing was very interested in surgery of the nervous system and would soon be operating on several hundred patients a year at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital at Harvard.

An artist his whole life, Cushing had been writing letters and drawing since he was a young man. It only fit that he would “meticulously record and document” each patient's story, complete with photographs and jarred specimens. It resulted in a collection of over 2,200 case studies.

The collection was tucked away in the sub-basement of a student dormitory in 1979. But in the early 1990s the collection was discovered by some “adventurous medical students” who had to “sneak through dark crawl spaces” to arrive at what students called “the brian room.” Students would sign a white board upon their arrival, making them a member of the “Brain Society.”

But in 1994 the collection was discovered and there was talk of moving it again to a permanent display. The lobe-shaped center was completed in 2010 to house the important archives with the purpose of storing Cushing's life-work and sharing his knowledge and passion with the world.

Dagradi has been working on Cushing's collection for more than 25 years.

She started as a photographer, printing some of his glass plate negatives. But she continued to work with the collection as it was placed in

its permanent home. Despite being around the brains and specimens for a couple decades, Dagradi is still just as passionate and intrigued by the collection.

“It's this slow reveal of knowledge. The photographs are this remarkable, historical collection of portraits that won't be made again. It's a time in photography and medical history...,” she explained. “There's this quite beautiful, almost accidental, archive. Showing us the people who had to live at a time when neurosurgery was so new, when there was a 90% chance of bleeding to death... And here you are being asked to have a photo taken before operation...”

As society moves more and more into the age of technology, almost everything has become digital. People can look up “brain” on Google and find a huge variety of photographs. They can read about Cushing online. But “there's a certain magic to three-dimensional objects,” said Dagradi, as to why people should visit the Cushing Center.

Guests aren't just reading Cushing's life story. They are looking right at his diary pages. They see his writing. They see his doodles. It's not just a diagram of a brain on Wikipedia: It's a real brain floating in a jar... It's tangible. It's real. It's physical.

“There's a certain mystery when you encounter objects in a museum,” she mused. “When you're in the presence of something real, surrounded by 450 brains and photographs of faces of the people who may have had these brains... There's something... It brings you to pause. We all need that. We are so overstimulated. Sometimes slowing down and paying attention... It's a different experience. It's a different kind of encounter.” 

Olivia Richman

A graduate of East Connecticut State University in Journalism, Olivia has written for Stonebridge Press & Antiques Marketplace among others. She enjoys writing, running and video games.

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