Paradise for Zombies and Neuroscience Nerds

Yale, what are you trying to do to me? You wait until I leave campus, and then you unveil all the good stuff. First, you revamp the dining halls. Then the Yale Daily News building gets a high-tech makeover. And now I find out that Yale has done something even cooler–building a brand new center devoted to showcasing an enormous collection of jarred brains.

A few months ago, I wrote about a strange holding in the Yale library–a piece of beef that Pavlov had “autographed” using a fancy new surgical knife. The steak may have been a novelty, but it’s part of an incredibly important collection: the Cushing Tumor Registry.

Harvey Cushing, who was an undergraduate at Yale in the 1880s, is considered to be one of the fathers of neurosurgery. He was innovative, pioneering, and extremely meticulous. So meticulous, in fact, that not only did he keep detailed records of his surgeries, but he also kept all the biological specimens–bits of brain and brain tumors–that he excised.

Cushing died in 1932, but Yale still has his collection of brains–and a remarkable new facility devoted to displaying it. The current issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine has a great feature about Cushing, his brains, and how the new Cushing Center came to be. (Incidentally, it’s written by Richard Conniff, author of the book The Species Seekers and the New York Times’s “Specimens” column.)

The whole story’s worth a read, but I’ll give you a teaser. Apparently, for decades after Cushing’s death, his collection was all but abandoned in a dank dorm basement:

Then one night in 1991, a group of medical students went drinking at Mory’s, and someone passed along a story about a roomful of brains in the basement of their dormitory. Later that night, says Christopher Wahl ’96MD, now an orthopedic surgeon, they went to investigate, spiritually fortified and still in their jackets and ties. Getting there meant clambering over ductwork, past barrels of food supplies for a former Cold War bomb shelter, and picking a lock with a paper clip. Then, in a room illuminated by bare lightbulbs, they found themselves amid shelf after metal shelf of brains and tumors in carefully labeled jars. Against a wall were rickety stacks of glass photographic images that struck Wahl, then a first-year med student, as “super-creepy”—patients with their hands splayed out across their chests in an almost cult-like pose, children stripped bare to reveal horrific deformities, people with heads blown out by the sort of tumors rarely seen in the modern medical era.

A few months later, Wahl took a course in medical history and another lightbulb came on, in his head. “I went to Dennis Spencer, then section chief of neurosurgery, and said, ‘You know, Harvey Cushing’s brains are in the sub-basement of the dormitory,’ and he almost choked.” Spencer says choking was a natural response to the notion of inebriated, lock-picking students visiting the storage room late at night. But he offered Wahl a yearlong fellowship to sort through the collection, and Wahl soon found himself moving from riveting photographs to records of the patients in the photographs to the specimens taken from their bodies.

. . . For Spencer and Wahl, the larger worry was that someone would declare the Tumor Registry and its precariously stored jars of human tissue in formaldehyde a health hazard, to be destroyed. Late-night visits to the brain room meanwhile became a student ritual, with visitors now leaving their signatures on a “Brain Society” whiteboard: “José ‘Hole in the Head’ Prince,” “Vivian ‘full frontal lobe’ Nereim,” “Josh Klein-oid Process,” and the unforgettable “Hana ‘I don’t even fucking go here’ Capruso.” The last may have been a reminder that the medical school couldn’t count indefinitely on the good will of its students to keep the collection intact.

Obviously, the new digs are a major upgrade. In fact, you can take a 360 degree tour of them here. I would have loved to study at those wooden tables. (And what better motivation for learning than being surrounded by hundreds of jars of disembodied brains?)

Image: Yale University/Terry Dagradi

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