Lives of the fellows

Harvey Williams Cushing

b.8 April 1869 d.7 October 1939
CB(1919) BA Yale(1891) MA Harvard(1895) MD Harvard(1895) Hon LLD Cantab(1920) †Hon DSc Oxon(1938) FACS(1913) FRS(1933) Hon FRCS(1913) Hon FRCSI(1918) Hon FRCSE(1927) Hon FRCP(1939)

Harvey Cushing was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the youngest of a family of ten. On both paternal and maternal sides he came of New England stock. His father, Henry Kirke Cushing, professor of obstetrics, gynaecology and medical jurisprudence, was descended from Matthew Cushing, who emigrated from Norfolk, England, to Bay Colony, Massachusetts, in 1638, and was one of a third successive generation of doctors who had migrated from Bay Colony to Ohio. His mother was Betsy Marie Williams, daughter of a glass manufacturer in Cleveland.

He was educated at Yale and Harvard Universities, and after holding junior appointments at Harvard he went to the Johns Hopkins Hospital and Medical School, Baltimore. There his surgical promise attracted the attention of Professor W. S. Halsted, who was to teach him his technique, Welch, who was to develop his respect for medical history and his interest in medical education, and Osier, from whom he was to learn much of his clinical neurology. Four years of increasing responsibility in Halsted’s department were followed by a year, 1900-01, spent in Britain, France, Italy and Switzerland.

He made the acquaintance of Charles Sherrington, but most of the time worked under Theodore Kocher at Berne in the physiological laboratory of Kronecker, studying vascular responses to increased intracranial pressure. From then he concentrated on the problems of intracranial, spinal and nerve surgery with the puritanical zeal of a man with a mission. As early as 1904 he gave a paper entitled ‘The Special field of neurological surgery’ (Cleveland med. 1905,4,1-25); by 1908 his neurological work had so developed that he applied successfully for a full time assistant, and by 1912 he was travelling widely, developing his professional knowledge and his interest in medical history. In this last year he was called to the Mosely chair of surgery at Harvard, where he got suitable conditions and did much towards designing the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in which he was to work for the next twenty years.

When the First World War broke out he organised with his colleagues a Harvard surgical unit and served with it for some months in France. On his return home he was active in promoting American medical preparedness for what he knew was to be her inevitable intervention, so that he and his Base Hospital No. 5 were ready for the call in May 1917. He served with the R.A.M.C, at Camiers and Boulogne and then at medical Headquarters of the American Expeditionary Force, and was awarded the C.B. and D.S.M.

In 1918 he had an attack of influenza followed by what was probably arterial vascular occlusions, which were to disable him from all but brief walking, but from 1919 he was an active surgeon for a further fourteen years. He founded the Society of Neurological Surgeons and employed and educated a series of assistants that by 1932 formed a large international body of inspired disciples, the first of whom was Percival Bailey, surgical neurologist, psychologist and neuropathologist. Devoted to the personal interest of his patients, he reduced annually his morbidity and mortality rates, and by his wisdom and fertile imagination made remarkable contributions to endocrinology.

Inevitably he became a leading citizen of world medicine and a talented and prolific writer, who was in demand everywhere and yet found time to write Osier’s biography (1925, 2 vols). Small, slim and dynamic, his full day was ordered with iron self-discipline. He seldom delegated any part of his surgical procedures to an assistant, even down to dressings in the wards. The occasional invitation to an evening at his home, however, revealed quite another personality—the entertaining life of the party.

When he retired from his chair in 1932, he was appointed Sterling professor of neurology at Yale and consulting neurologist at New Haven Hospital, and in 1937 became professor emeritus and director of studies in the history of medicine at Yale. Medals and distinguished lectureships were showered on him. He was a member, honorary member or corresponding member of some sixty learned societies and president of four of them, and was awarded some thirty-five honorary degrees. In 1902 he married Kate Cowell. They had two sons, the elder of whom was killed in a motor accident, and three daughters.

Richard R Trail

† The list of honorary degrees is too lengthy to include in entirety.

[Brit.med.J., 1939, 2, 787-8 (p), 831-3; Bull. Hist. Med., 1940, 8, 332-54, 1055-66 (p), bibl.; J. Amer. med. Ass., 1939, 113, 1505-06; Lancet, 1939, 2, 856-8 (p), 912-13, 1052; Nature (Lond.), 1939, 144, 736; Sci. Monthly (Wash.), 1939, 49, 477-9 (p); Yale J. Biol. Med., 1940, 12, 317-26 (p); Yale Univ. Libr. Gaz., 1940, 14, 33-40 (p); D.A.B., 11, pt. 2, 137-40; Lives R.C.S., 192-7; H. Cushing. From a surgeon’s journal, 1915-1918. Boston, 1936; J. F. Fulton. Harvey Cushing: a biography. Springfield, Ill., 1946 (p); Harvey Cushing Society. Bibliography of the writings of Harvey Cushing. Springfield, Ill., 1939; Montreal Neurological Institute. Neurological biographies and addresses. Foundation volume. London, 1936, 169-78 (p); E. H. Thomson. Harvey Cushing: surgeon, author, artist. New York, 1950(p).]

(Volume V, page 93)

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