Mystery Meat in the Yale Medical Library

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Harvey Cushing (left) and Ivan Pavlov in Boston in 1929

The Medical Historical Library at Yale has some fascinating holdings. (As an undergrad, I majored in the history of science and medicine and spent many hours in that library.) There are early–and stunningly illustrated–anatomy texts, old surgical tools, vintage public health posters. It was heaven to a science and history nerd like me.

So you can imagine my utter devastation when I recently discovered that I missed out on the chance to see what may be the best holding by any library, anywhere, ever. Bold claim, you say? Well, you just wait.

The current issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine has a piece on this remarkable holding:

It is the only wet specimen in the room, on a high shelf just above eye level. The rest of the room—the Cushing Study, a small office off the Medical Historical Library in Yale’s Sterling Hall of Medicine—is filled with books, diaries, and memorabilia. The printed label on the jar reads “Cushing Tumor Registry,” but this is a souvenir rather than a pathoanatomical specimen. Typing on the label tells us that “this is a piece of steak autographed by Ivan Petrovitch Pavlov.”

The story? Apparently Pavlov met Harvey Cushing–a renowned neurosurgeon–at a conference at Harvard in 1929. Pavlov watched Cushing remove a brain tumor from a cancer patient. According to the Yale Alumni Magazine:

Pavlov was captivated by the new electrosurgical knife Cushing used in the operation, and at the end of the procedure, Cushing got a piece of beef so that the elder scientist could try his hand. After making a few incisions, Pavlov inscribed his name into the meat. “I asked him whether he wanted me to eat the meat in the hope of improving my conditional reflexes,” Cushing wrote in his journal, “or whether we could keep it in the museum, the latter we will proceed to do—’Pavlov’s beef-steak.’” A collector of old medical books and of brain tumors, when he died in 1939 Cushing bequeathed both to Yale, where his rare books would become the cornerstone for creating the Medical Historical Library.

And the Yale library, apparently, is where Pavlov’s beef-steak remains. So: Can anyone top that? If you know of a better library holding somewhere, let me know in the comments below.

Image: Yale Medical Library/Harvey Cushing Photograph Collection

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