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EW HAVEN, Conn. — At some point, the brains in the basement were definitely going to become a draw.

How could they not? There were hundreds of them, all floating in clear jars with peeling yellowed labels: a grim diagnosis; a person’s name. Plus, this wasn’t just any basement. It lay beneath Yale’s medical school dorm, and behind a locked door that could be breached with a screwdriver.

Only a few students knew about the basement. But those who emerged from a visit were duly spooked.

“It was like a shop of horrors,” said Christopher Wahl, who visited multiple times while at the medical school in the late 1990s. “The overwhelming atmosphere was that you’re in a place that you maybe shouldn’t be in, lit by bare incandescent bulbs with a dirty floor in an old basement that smells of formaldehyde.”

To Wahl, it was a “kind of horrific or strangely beautiful or magical scene.”

It was the sort of place you might want to visit on Halloween — or not.

The jars, it turns out, belonged to Dr. Harvey Cushing, a legend of modern neurosurgery and a Yale medicine stalwart.

Cushing
Dr. Harvey Cushing and team conduct an operation to remove a brain tumor on April 15, 1931. Cushing/Whitney Medical Library/Yale University

Cushing is credited with being the first surgeon to successfully remove a brain tumor; his most famous patient was Leonard Wood, a prominent U.S. military leader and 1920 presidential candidate. Cushing also pioneered the use of a new surgical instrument, the cauterizing Bovie tool, which boosted brain surgery survival rates from less than 20 percent to more than 90 percent.

He was exhaustive in his analysis of tumors and other neurological diseases, often photographing patients before and after surgery, and obtaining his patients’ permission to study their brains posthumously. The photos and the brains provided valuable insight to visiting neurosurgeons for decades, both before and after Cushing’s death in 1939.

Cushing’s collection, though, lost relevance amid the proliferation of competing brain registries. In 1979, it was moved below the medical school dorm along with lab materials, an old gurney, and stacks of photographic negatives.

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Wahl said the photos may have been the creepiest thing about visiting.

“The brain specimens are spooky because they’re just weird, but the thing that was most arresting was when you’d actually dust off these photographic negatives,” he said. “A negative is spooky no matter what you’re looking at, but these were anywhere from gruesome to sort of obtusely beautiful images, and they were very much a time stamp.”

“It almost has a ghostly, spiritual feel.”

Cushing
Cushing, an accomplished medical artist, often sketched details about his patients’ disorders to supplement X-ray images. Cushing/Whitney Medical Library/Yale University

Students, he said, “all dealt with it a little differently. Like some people would sort of laugh inappropriately. Some felt it was really sacred. And you didn’t want to be disrespectful, but at the same time …”

Wahl, who is now an orthopedic surgeon in Seattle, was struck deeply enough by the experience that he devoted his medical school thesis to a historical analysis of the collection, which was known for decades as the Cushing Brain Tumor Registry.

Cushing Brain Specimens Group C 07/30/2009 in Glass Jars
Cushing brain specimens in glass jar before restoration. Terry Dagradi/Cushing Center/Yale University

After he left Yale, students continued to secretly break into the basement, while others in the medical school community took up the idea of creating a permanent exhibit. Two planned sites for a permanent exhibition fell through. Then organizers discovered available space in a campus library — more specifically, the library basement.

The space is now known as the Cushing Center, a museum of sorts that celebrated its seventh anniversary in June. The library itself is named after philanthropist and art collector John Hay Whitney and, fittingly, Dr. Harvey Cushing.

Among other items, the exhibit includes dozens of patient photos and the original jars with the original labels. It is an exquisite, dimly lit space that pays respect to the thousands of patients whose lives were shortened by neurological diseases, but whose contributions to Cushing’s research have benefited generations.

It also offers a nod to the days when students would sneak to the basement with bottles of wine or a companion they might like to spook, or maybe just as a personal rite of passage: A poster titled “The Brain Society 2002” includes signatures from aspiring doctors like Prem “Queen Amygdala” Bhat, Jose “Hole in the Head” Prince, “Locus Ceruleus,” and someone who simply went by “Brain Eater.”

Cushing Tumor Registry
Cushing’s photos included skeletal and scalp abnormalities that often had origins in brain-related diseases. Cushing/Whitney Medical Library/Yale University

The center otherwise devotes little energy to nurturing its spooky roots. There will be no special Halloween hours, said Terry Dagradi, the center’s coordinator.

“But,” she added, “I expect there may be a few more than normal visitors on that day.”

Cushing Brain Room
Yale medical school students memorialized their spooky visits to the basement, with nicknames that may yet come back to haunt them. Terry Dagradi/Cushing Center/Yale University

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  • This is a great article about a special place. I went to Yale Medical School. Maybe the visitors were feeling awe, something not easily identified in today’s world. Most professionals are subtly encouraged to detach, meaning NOT touch, converse, or otherwise relate to patients. How inspiring to see what remains of such a passionate physician and the bond he forged with patients. We need museums to remind us what we do is about real people.
    This past week at my hospital, someone discovered a lab oversight, an excess medication level. But that inpatient was being discharged. Then staff discussion jumped a track. The complaint was how this discussion, about the level, was delaying our work schedule. Really? It was as if what we were talking about was the distraction, not the schedule.
    Yes, we need all the reminders we can get that we are treating humans and not their EHR’s.
    Peggy Finston MD
    www. Acu-Psychiatry.com

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