Haunting pictures show brain surgery patients from the early 1900s


Brain surgery has come a long way in the last two centuries, as these images show.

Some of the earliest patients of the medical procedures were photographed from the early 1900s – and now the images have been revealed by Yale University.


The haunting images were discovered in a university basement alongside shelves of brains in formaldehyde which have bewitched medical students visiting the campus’ Harkness Dormitory.

For 20 years students have been sneaking down to the basement and signing a poster as members of the secret ‘Brain Society’ in the room.


Although the brains themselves hold interest for those studying the physiology of the human brain, a collection of thousands of black-and-white photographs offer a stark insight into early surgeries for all of us.

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The source of the collections is Dr Harvey Cushing, a pioneer in the world of neurosurgery who worked from 1899 until 1932.

Commonly known as the father of modern neurological surgery, his images have only in this past year been digitised and are now able to be shared with the public.


The Cushing Tumor Registry arrived with the doctor at Yale in 1934, at the time reportedly holding 2,200 case studies including brain specimens, tumor specimens and 15,000 photo negatives, both on film and glass plate.


Now the images are coming to light, but the identity of most of the patients is not known.

“They just keep revealing themselves,” Terry Dagradi, Cushing Center Coordinator told Atlas Obscura.

“They are amazing not because they were shot to be amazing. They were shot to be documentary, shot as the history of neuroscience was being born.”

A famous brain in the collection belonged to a physician who was friends with Theodore Roosevelt, Major General Leonard Wood.

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A former governor of Cuba and the Philippines, following seizures in his left leg, Cushing removed a large benign meningioma tumour from his brain in 1910.

Following the groundbreaking operation the major resumed his career, which included standing as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920.

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This article was originally published in the Huffington Post.