Mystery Meat in the Yale Medical Library

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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6 Responses to Mystery Meat in the Yale Medical Library

  1. Steve Silberman says:

    Heh, great post, Emily.

    This doesn’t match that, but a few years ago, I wrote a piece for the New Yorker on another culinary item that should have ended up in a museum, but I don’t believe it ever did:

    Allen Ginsberg’s Last Soup

    I believe the soup is still in the freezer at the Ginsberg Trust.

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  3. Michelle says:

    As a devoted employee of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, I must defend the holdings of Mütter Museum and the College’s Historical Medical Library. Just yesterday I was donning rubber gloves, assuring our curator that I was up on my tetanus shots, and looking through 19th-century diphtheria antitoxin syringes–some capable of delivering up to seven ounces of horse-derived antitoxin. (Ouch.)

    But as for specific items, I personally am very fond of our copy of William Heberden’s “Some Account Of the Success of Inoculation for the Small-Pox in England and America together with Plain Instructions, By which any Person may be enabled to perform the Operation, and conduct the Patient through the Distemper.” The pamphlet’s introduction is by Benjamin Franklin, who encouraged Heberden to write the pamphlet. Franklin’s own son had died of smallpox at age four. There’s also an original letter from Louis Pasteur to Emile Roux that is quite curious, and an old Thomas Dover text, and… I could go on forever. Really, what comes out of all of this is that the library staff should really stop letting me loose in the stacks. One of these days I am going to flat-out refuse to leave.

    …I have to admit that the piece of steak is pretty cool, though.

  4. Emily Anthes says:

    Ok, 19th-century diphtheria antitoxin syringes are pretty cool. I will give you that.

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