The New York Times reports how a carefully assembled archive of human brains with tumours, collected by the pioneering neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing, was left to gather dust and decay at Yale university. Recently restored, it gives a glimpse of the early days of neurosurgery before brain scans or the consistent use of anaesthetic.
These chunks of brains floating in formaldehyde bring to life a dramatic chapter in American medical history. They exemplify the rise of neurosurgery and the evolution of 20th-century American medicine — from a slipshod trial-and-error trade to a prominent, highly organized profession.
These patients had operations during the early days of brain surgery, when doctors had no imaging tools to locate a tumor or proper lighting to illuminate the surgical field; when anesthesia was rudimentary and sometimes not used at all; when antibiotics did not exist to fend off potential infections. Some patients survived the procedure — more often if Dr. Cushing was by their side.
The collection has now been restored and organised and can be seen at the Cushing Centre at Yale.
Don’t forget to have a look at some of Cushing’s original photos of post-operation patients on the left hand side of the NYT article.