Harvey Cushing: A Life in Surgery
by Michael Bliss
Oxford University Press, 591 pp., $40.00
Late on a Friday afternoon in May 1984, seventy-five-year-old Betsey Whitney, the last of the three Cushing sisters whose photos had appeared on so many society pages earlier in the century, sat in rapt attention as her father’s many contributions to medical science were described to an audience of about 150 fascinated listeners. The occasion was the annual Meeting of the Associates of the Yale Medical Library, and the speaker was Dr. Jeremiah Barondess, professor of medicine at Cornell and, coincidentally, her own personal physician.
Flanked by her two daughters in the high-vaulted, balcony-rimmed Medical Historical Library, Mrs. Whitney was surrounded on all sides by shelves containing hundreds of the valuable books collected by her father during his lifetime. Two floors of stacks lay below, holding many hundreds more from his collection, adding up to thousands. To enter the library, the three women had passed through the two-storied Cushing Rotunda, presented to the university by the Yale class of 1891, in honor of their most distinguished classmate. As they were being escorted through that lofty—in both senses of the word—space that has been a source of inspiration to several generations of medical students and faculty, the three women paused to look up at its circular walls, which displayed fourteen steel crests representing the European honorary degrees awarded to Harvey Cushing. No graduate of the Yale School of Medicine would disagree that the symbolic focal point of the two-hundred-year-old institution is that magnificent rotunda.
Sitting near Mrs. Whitney was a friend of many years, Elizabeth Thomson, a former editor of the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences and one of Cushing’s biographers. Though Mrs. Whitney had often traveled to the New Haven suburb of Hamden to visit Miss Thomson, she would later tell her that she had never come close to grasping the full range of her father’s vast accomplishments until that day, as she listened to Dr. Barondess and heard others describe his work. He was for the most part a distant and even imperious figure to his own family, frequently off doing something that seemed far more important than being at home with his wife, Kate, and their five children.
What was it that Harvey Cushing had been doing in all those years of busy inattention to those who should have been closest to him? Betsey Whitney was well aware, of course, that her father was commonly referred to as the father of neurosurgery, and that he had, during an unimaginably productive career, operated on the seemingly impossible number of two thousand patients with tumors of the brain. She also knew, though hardly to the extent that she became aware of it that day, that he was a pioneer in the research that elucidated the functions of the pituitary, the small structure lying at the base of the skull that has so strong a controlling influence on other hormonal secretions of the body that it is commonly known as the master …