The Cushing Center

Today I visited a holy grail, a place where over 400 brains from years and years ago are preserved in clear glass jars. These brains, and the accompanying photographs, journal entries, drawings, tools, bones, and mementos are all part of Harvey Cushing’s legacy in the field of neurosurgery.

Located in the basement of the Cushing/Whitney Yale Medical Center Library, The Cushing Center itself was a labor of love of a few people who understood the importance of Cushing’s hoard, and worked to bring it all back from the depths of a storage room, stashed away in the dark.

The sixth grade Science teacher at my school was responsible for my morning’s adventure. She takes each of her three sections to visit the Center, and she invited me along for today’s trek.

Upon entering the building and walking through the Library, I was immediately struck by the homage to information and learning. Perhaps it was the quiet, perhaps it was knowing where we were headed, perhaps it was the first room we entered, which was wood paneled with large, wooden card catalogs. We soon reached the stairs to The Cushing Center, of which the photo at the left is displayed large on the wall of the landing between the two sides of the stairway.

Pam had given us a very explicit assignment. Upon entering The Cushing Center we were to take a seat on the floor, look around for a few moments, and then begin writing or drawing and not stop till asked to do so. Supplied with clipboards of blank and lined paper, we each began moving our pencils. The kids were told that if they could not think of something to write, they should simply write the word “something” over and over until something else came to them. Here is what I wrote:

awe inspiring and humbled to walk into this sanctuary of the mind. though the minds are no longer living, they are doorways for us, the living, to see inside ourselves. that is a question I have long had – what does MY brain look like. it will not be possible to see and touch my brain, but I respect those who have offered their brains for the rest of us to learn from. at this summer’s FAMI workshop at Mr Sinai, we were asked to have a moment of silent respect for those who gave their bodies to science, so the rest of us – the living – could learn. so too, here in this sanctuary, these moments of quiet writing and reflection honor those whose brains we see.

so where am I? on the cool tiled floor of the Cushing Center in the basement of the Yale Medical School. curiously enough, the room’s architect is a parent at the school where I teach.

the warm burnt-sienna hues of the wood shelves and cabinets and backsplash welcome me with gentle arms, beckoning a visit with the 440 specimen jars. but they don’t feel like specimens to me – they are someone’s lasting physical container – preserved in fluid – but perhaps an inkling remains.

Among the many treasures in the room was an original first edition of De revolutionizes orbium caelestium by Nicolas Copernicus, published in Nuremberg in 1543 and purchased by Cushing in 1924. Cushing was an avid collector of books, still, it was a bit boggling to see an original book by Copernicus. I suppose no less boggling than comprehending that Cushing took out and documented at least 2000 brain tumors during his career as a neurosurgeon.

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