Tomorrow (June 8th) is World Brain Tumor Day! It may not sound like something worth celebrating, unless, like me, you’ve survived one of these suckers. But other than being thankful, how does one observe such a day. Perhaps you’d like to see one of the largest collections of human brains, right here in Connecticut on the campus of Yale University in New Haven.
For decades, the brains in Yale’s Cushing Center collection languished in the basement of the Harkness Dormitory, where breaking in to see them was a ritual among medical students. Today, the brains sit in a well-appointed display that cost $1.5 million to create—a somewhat rare concentration of resources for a brain collection, which these days often stay hidden in storage rooms.
The brains were collected by Dr. Harvey Cushing, a neuroscience professor at Yale and a pioneer of modern neurosurgery, who willed them to the school upon his death. The most famous specimen belonged to Leonard Wood, who served as the personal physician to two presidents as well as Army Chief of Staff. Cushing successfully removed a large tumor from Wood’s brain in 1910, ending his seizures—one of the few such successful operations at the time. Sadly, Wood died in 1927 after an operation to remove a second tumor.
The brains are also notable for being displayed with before-and-after photos of the patients—less harrowing and more fascinating than they sound. Cushing’s journals, surgical instruments, and other specimens complete the exhibit.