A Basement Full of Brains (The Cushing Collection at Yale)

There is no publicity, no markings, no signs. Not even an arrow. To find this place, you have to drive to New Haven, Connecticut and find the Yale Medical School, then the Library that is specific to it.  If you can find a parking space in front, it will likely be tucked neatly between food trucks – apparently food truck falafel is brain food–the only place that I’ve seen more food trucks than at the Yale Medical School is in front of the Metropolitan museum of art in Manhattan. I think my kids should eat more truck falafel. If you can’t squeeze in, pick any one of the pay by phone lots nearby and walk it. Truly, you will feel smarter by association, trampling the sidewalks with some of the top young minds in our nation–gaunt, tired and smelling strongly of embalming fluid, tahini and old books.


Creaking open the library doors, I was momentarily disoriented–I had just stumbled into an ancient white rotunda topped building flanked by columns with a security desk that reeked of “official business.” When my eyes adjusted to the light and I realized that the three hundred pound gorilla of a man behind the desk was spitting orders at ME, I managed to stammer out, “Um, this is the….library….right?” He nodded. “I’m, um, here to see. . . Um, the brains?”

At this, he broke out into a giant grin and I almost fainted in relief. I gave him my ID and he tossed me a visitors pass and a few directions. I was expecting brains. I was expecting a library. What I wasn’t expecting was for this library to be so COOL. On the way to the front desk, I passed an amazing exhibit on the history of human teratology–paintings celebrating human monstrosity through time. The antiquities collection in this library includes works as far back as Hippocrates. The presentations are tasteful, interesting and free.

When I checked in at the collections desk, a friendly librarian closed her computer, stepped out from behind the counter and gave me a personal escort two stories down into the exhibit in the basement. When the door unlocked, the greenish lights came on and every bit of mystique and wonder you could have hoped to find in a room full of brains in jars was too little, too small. This place is AMAZING.


Doctor Harvey Cushing was a true Renaissance Man. He was a brilliant doctor, one of the pioneers of neurosurgery, a soldier (they named a ship after him!), a talented photographer, a brilliant artist, he earned a Pulitzer for his own autobiography, found love, had great friends, collected rare books and medical equipment, and invented groundbreaking surgical tools. Above all, though, he had a little flair for the macabre and the vivacity to make it look cool. This cool grayish green shark fin shaped basement room contains his restored collection of the photos of his patients and their brains, in jars.


Once you’re in, the library staff leaves you to your own devices (I rub my hands together in mischievous glee). You can open all of the drawers which contain his collections, sit down, read, stare, spin in the chairs, put your fingers on the glass, make fish faces, in short, you can enjoy the entire collection without someone creeping over your shoulder or making you feel embarrassed about wanting to read every. Single. Thing. There are no sighing guards, no unattended children, this is truly a place where you can be alone with your thoughts–and the thoughts of a few hundred other disembodied lovelies.


I can honestly say that I’m changed by this place. The candid glimpse into a great mind showed me that play has its role in greatness–one display shows photos of Cushing and his friend Pavlov (yes, the bell ringer–not Quasimodo, the Russian one with the dogs). They were goofing around in the lab one day with an electric scalpel that Cushing had invented and Pavlov autographed a steak. Cushing kept it in a jar. Cushing posed in the photos with his patients–he was smiling, they were smiling, you got the feeling that knowing him was a grand adventure. His bevy of secretaries were among the most educated women of his time, yet they tirelessly followed him all over the world taking dictation and secretly calling themselves “The Harem” behind his back.

I could have stayed all day, but I couldn’t figure out how to describe my location to a pizza delivery boy and I kept seeing malignant tumors and having random thoughts of falafel, so I will have to visit again with a sack lunch. Of brains. Nom. Nom. Nom.

About peik

What's to say? I'm a chronic fun seeker and life marrow sucker. I live in an ancient brick house in a darling town with my perfect and tolerant husband, my two amazing teenagers (The Giant and The Ginger) and two blue Danes (Oliver and Periwinkle). A lover of obscure roadside attractions and museums of oddity, I travel, write, laugh, make friends, write letters, sometimes run, eat great food and drink good whiskey. I've never had a bad journey and every single day is my grandest adventure.
This entry was posted in confessions of the Weird and Unashamed, Just Being Me, Travel, Weird America and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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