Brains in jars at the Cushing Center in the Yale Medical Library

This Ivy League College Keeps Hundreds of Human Brains in Jars

This Ivy League College Keeps Hundreds of Human Brains in Jars

Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders
Oct. 6 2014 11:11 AM

Human Brains in Jars at Yale's Medical Library

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Sitting quietly in jars in a custom-built room at Yale's medical library are 550 human brains. The collection once belonged to pioneering neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing, who preserved the brains from 1903 to 1932 as part of his tumor registry. When Cushing died in 1939, his undergraduate alma mater Yale inherited the brains.

Cushing was among a handful of doctors operating on the brain during the early 20th century. At the time, about a third of patients who underwent brain tumor surgery did not survive the operation. Cushing introduced practices that dramatically lowered the mortality rate, such as monitoring blood pressure during surgery and operating with a local anesthesic instead of ether. He was also the first to use x-rays to diagnose brain tumors.


Prior to being restored and placed in the medical library in 2010, the leaky jars holding Cushing's brain collection were locked in a basement under Yale's med student dorms. During the 1990s, students seeking a thrill would sneak into the dark, dusty storage room to find the fabled brains. Though these expeditions were unauthorized, students treated the specimens with care and never swiped any of the brains. When moving the brains in 2010, Yale employees found a poster with names scrawled on it bearing the phrase "Leave Only Your Name. Take Only Your Memories."

Yale's Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library.

Photo: Public domain

More places to see human brains:

Ella Morton is a writer working on The Atlas Obscura, a book about global wonders, curiosities, and esoterica adapted from Atlas Obscura. Follow her on Twitter.