The idea came to Yale’s famous neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing, M.D., not long after a train ride from Canada to New Haven. The year was 1934. Cushing and his colleague and friend, John Farquhar Fulton, M.D., had returned to the School of Medicine after perusing the historical medical texts of Sir William Osler. Osler, the famous Canadian physician and co-founder of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, had in 1929 donated his collection to McGill University in Montreal. Cushing and Fulton, who were both friends of Osler, discussed the future of their respective medical text collections. They decided, along with a third bibliophile, Arnold C. Klebs, M.D., to do Osler one better. The three men wanted to create a Yale historical medical library with collections that “have a more personal and intimate provenance than has Sir Osler’s library,” as Cushing wrote to the Swiss physician Klebs.

That’s exactly what they did, said Dennis D. Spencer, M.D., HS ’77, the Harvey and Kate Cushing Professor of Neurosurgery. Spencer and Gordon M. Shepherd, M.D., D.Phil., professor of neuroscience, recounted these events at the start of reunion weekend on June 3 in honor of a year-long celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library. Cushing’s granddaughter, Kate Whitney, and his great-grandson, Harvey Cushing, sat as guests of honor in the front row for the talk. Rising third-year medical student Cynthia Tsay chaired their discussion; she researched Fulton’s life as an undergraduate Yale College student under Shepherd’s guidance, and for her medical school thesis is studying Cushing’s brain collection with Spencer.

Cushing himself attended Yale College as an undergraduate. At that time, Spencer said, he made an unlikely future library co-founder. Before graduating in 1891, Cushing visited the main library exactly once. “He was a much better baseball player than he was a scholar at Yale,” Spencer quipped. But Cushing’s later visits to Europe‒and encouragement from Osler‒piqued his interest in historic medical texts. By the time he retired from Harvard Medical School in 1932, Cushing had amassed an impressive number of books and drawings by the 16th century anatomist Andreas Vesalius. In 1933, Cushing came back to Yale as the Sterling Chair of Neurology, and looked forward to working with his longtime friend Fulton, who was then the medical school’s youngest Sterling Professor of Physiology. Fulton also maintained a breathless pace of scientific accomplishments. “He just seemed to slide through life with things happening all the time,” Shepherd said. Besides publishing pioneering studies on cognitive neuroscience, Fulton helped Yale become a hotbed of physiology research. He started the first primate research laboratory in the United States, and created the Yale Aero-Medical Research Unit, where researchers studied physiological problems associated with flying during World War II. As an avid bibliophile, he amassed his own collection in classical physiology, and later wrote a biography of Cushing that won a Pulitzer prize.

To round out their collections, the two men turned to Klebs, a pioneering tuberculosis researcher, who met Cushing and Fulton through their mutual friendship with Osler. Klebs practiced in the United States during the early part of his career, before moving back to his native Switzerland. When Yale medical historical library discussions began in 1934, Klebs offered nearly 3,000 tuberculosis texts from his collection and more than 300 medical incunabula‒books printed before 1501. Together the three collectors created a collection unique in content and value, far beyond that in the Brady Laboratory Library, which in 1923 consisted of only 9,212 volumes.

In June 1935, the Yale Corporation gave the green light for the group to hire an architect. The ultimate design was a Y-shaped building, with one branch housing the historical library, and the other serving as the main library. After several years delay, construction finally began, in time for Cushing to die in 1939 knowing the library would be built. It was dedicated on June 15, 1941, 75 years ago.

At the conclusion of the panel discussion, John Gallagher, director of the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, told the audience that “the library today remains an engaged portal of research.” He gestured toward the volumes lining the wall. “We have the historical collection, but also cutting-edge services.” . Some examples include librarians partnering on systematic review teams, the licensing of clinical decision-making resources like UpToDate and ClinicalKey, the provision of research support and training on the use of complex end-user bioinformatics and mutation analysis tools, or helping faculty to create pedagogically sound tutorials and learning objects for inclusion in the curriculum, he said.

During a brief question-and-answer session after the panel discussion, Candace Corson, M.D. ’71, mentioned that her father had the opportunity to conduct research with Fulton at Yale. “I think of this library as the product of men who respected each other and had strong friendships,” she said. One of the most impressive possessions in the library today, said Thomas P. Duffy, M.D., emeritus professor of medicine (hematology), is Cushing’s Vesalian collection. “We hosted discussions here [in the historical medical library] as part of our humanities program, and you could not imagine the looks on students’ faces when they held pieces from the Vesalian collection,” Duffy said, referring to the Yale Program for Humanities in Medicine, which he led for 16 years. “You cannot replace that tactile experience.”