Cushing Brain Collection features incredible photographs of patients

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Recently the Yale Medical School opened the doors to a permanent, brand-new exhibition in a converted sub-basement underneath the research library. You pass through a series of hallways and doorways and access points, down winding stairs, past a giant's skeleton, and swipe a card the librarian has given you, and enter a darkened room; motion detectors sense your presence, and lights fade up. You are surrounded by brains in jars, punctuated with amazing photographs made from glass plate negatives not by a professional photographer, as far as we know, but very likely by the very doctor who collected the specimens in formaldehyde.

Dr. Harvey Cushing was a pioneer in neurosurgery who created the Brain Tumor Registry, 2,200 case studies of people tissue samples, notes, brains, fine anatomical drawings and 15,000 negatives. He was professor of surgery at Harvard until 1932, then at Yale, where he and his massive collection ended up. It sat largely un-used for decades, and even ended up in a dormitory basement. Luckily, a med student in the Nineties rediscovered the collection and wrote his thesis on it. The new space finally gives the fascinating archive its due. In a case near the front door are stacks of large-format 5x7" negatives made from 1903-1930, many glass, but also some are very damaged flexible cellulose sheets. Luckily, the obviously intelligent doctor hired photographers* who shot 80% of these portraits on glass, even after the photographic world had moved on to the new film base. He possibly had a sense that this new way wouldn't be as archival - save the chance of the glass breaking due to mis-handling, of course.

The photographs are of patients both pre and post-op. They are hauntingly beautiful and sad. Some of the poses and gazes seem incomprehensible and utterly strange to today's viewers. They are raw, yet elegant, windows into the world of madness. They are also clearly the work of a true artist, a great mind.* Perhaps the great mind was that of the photograher, or, perhaps more likely that of the doctor/director, who was also a skilled and sensitive draftsman. In a recent lecture about Brassai just a few blocks away at the Art School, Tod Papageorge spoke of that artist's other feats in writing and painting, and pointed out that, "Great photographs come from a great mind." The Cushing Collection clearly proves this to be true.

Though it is completely worth the trip to New Haven, a few photographs are available for viewing online at: and For information on directions, hours and tours: The exhibition is on view in the Medical research Library at the Yale School of Medicine, 333 Cedar Street, and is free and open to the public.


*This article has been updated to include information that has arisen that photographers were hired, and that the images were not made y the doctor himself.

Name index: 
Lisa Kereszi