Harvey Cushing: A Life in Surgery, by Michael Bliss

When it comes to reading, I am new to the field of medical biography, having specifically avoided it for over 20 years just as the mailman of old eschewed taking long walks on his day off. Mercifully, enough time has passed that I no longer toss my popcorn into the inky depths if a patient of mine says hello to me at the movie theater. I am more comfortable integrating medicine into my personal life than I was during my residency, which we commonly referred to as the "Bataan Death March." I no longer leave the hospital ward via an obscure stairway at a speed that makes jackrabbits green with envy, and don't feel the need to wrap my face up à; la Michael Jackson when strolling down the boulevard. I have found the tranquility to spend some of my precious leisure hours reading topics in medicine, like this new biography of the founder of neurosurgery and the discoverer of one of the most well-known eponyms in all of medicine.

Harvey Cushing: A Life in Medicine, written by Michael Bliss, the author of the definitive modern biography of Sir William Osler, provides a fascinating look at the world of surgery, specifically neurosurgery, during the first three decades of the last century. Bliss has mastered the reams of material chronicling Cushing's life and fashioned an engaging narrative of the extraordinary doctor's career. Anyone with any interest in the history of medicine will find this biography wonderful to delve into. Just these facts alone should serve to pique one's interest in Harvey Cushing:

He went to college at Yale, medical school at Harvard and did his residency under the legendary surgeon William Halsted at a new American hospital called Johns Hopkins.

He kept meticulous, voluminous notes of all his patients from medical school until retirement.

He insisted upon antiseptic technique in the surgery suite, which was still not widely accepted at the time.

He served his country as a field surgeon in France during World War I, sometimes doing as many as six operations a day on soldiers with head wounds.

He was a voracious bibliophile who collected now priceless volumes of incunabula and then donated them (with two other peers) to form a medical library at Yale University School Of Medicine.

He operated on 2000 brain tumors during his career.

One of his daughters married Jimmy Roosevelt, the son of President Roosevelt, which gave Harvey entree to the White House. Another married William Paley, the president of CBS.

He developed Buerger's disease which led to a toe amputation, and died from a myocardial infarction - all from a lifelong addiction to cigarette smoking.

And last but not least, he discovered the clinical syndrome he called "pituitary basophilism," which was immediately re-named by his colleagues in his honor.

That should be enough to stimulate anyone's interest in this singular figure in American medicine. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.


More like this

Harvey Cushing (1869-1939) is considered to be the father of modern neurological surgery. In the early part of the 20th century, he developed basic techniques and instruments for operating on the brain and, as a result, founded the discipline as a distinct surgical speciality. Before Cushing began…
Rejection of authority and working-class values inspired the scientific method. As everyone knows, when food is digested it is processed into chyle and turned into blood by the liver. This blood then flows to the lungs where it releases any impurities into the air. Flowing from the lungs into the…
Brad Delong is surprised. The National Review organized a Presidents' Day symposium of historians on great presidents, yielding this list: Richard Brookhiser... George Washington H. W. Crocker III... Ronald Reagan John Derbyshire... Calvin Coolidge Bruce Frohnen... William Henry Harrison…
The BBC has produced an interesting series called Blood and Guts about the modern history of surgery and the first episode, which is about neurosurgery, is now available online at the BBC iPlayer website. (For those outside the U.K., it is also available as a torrent.) Presented by surgeon Michael…

Sounds like you'd also enjoy (if you haven't already) No Man Alone by Wilder Penfield....student of Cushing's.

Your readers might also enjoy "One in Three," which is a new book tracing the history of the field of oncology, from tje ancient Roman to today.

I had no idea that chemo was widely adopted in the 1970s! Given that, how do we really understand the long term effects of these treatments? In any case, I'll be happy to live long enough to find out.

Interesting information! Did you know that April 8th has been declared Cushing's Awareness Day? April 8th is Dr. Harvey Cushing's birthday, so that day was chosen in his honor. It just passed congress this year.

I suffer from Cushing's Disease myself, 20+ to diagnosis believe it or not, so this interests me. ;)