"If you know history, you know that there is no such thing as a self-made man or self-made woman. We are shaped by people we have never met. Yes, reading history will make you a better citizen ... but it is also an immense pleasure." --David McCullough
His parents called him, "Harvey," and I'll bet that if you asked them if he served the name well, they would give you a reserved, "Yes, for being the youngest."Harvey was tenth of 10 children - perhaps the result of dad being an OB physician and enjoying delivering daughters and sons. As a child growing up in Cleveland his five older brothers weren't afraid to push Harvey's limits of patience by always demanding he keep up. Harvey's life follows the truism that "leaders are readers," not only by voraciously reading most of Cleveland's book supply, but also by following his dad's example of book collecting. Owning a book is to own a piece of living history. He was an avid artist and journaler, and was always writing down events from the day or sketching scenes from around his home.
Like most readers, Harvey excelled at school and won a spot at Yale, where he solidified his commitment to do what his father and grandfather had done before him: practice medicine. Harvey was the typical type-A, "perfect" student because he meticulously documented everything ... and he read everything, too. He still had time to star in his frat's annual drama as Pocahontas. Graduating with honors from Yale allowed a smooth transition into Harvard medical school. Although Harvey was mostly work and no play - even skipping Christmas at home to intern in surgery - he did manage to take an eventful trip to Chicago, where he saw a football game (which he described as a "waste of time"), tried the best of the Midwest's beer selection, and saw Buffalo Bill perform. Harvey also found a girl, Kate, who he'd known from home. He was a faithful letter writer and despite his headstrong words ("it's best for me not to see too much of her ..."), they stayed friends. Turns out she was a patient woman.
While in medical school, Harvey was smitten by the brain, specifically brain surgery. He consumed every book on the subject. He even obtained a copy of a Vesalius anatomy text (a really, really old book). Harvey was a complex person and his willingness to work 90-hour weeks served his interest well - he even skipped his hard-earned medical school commencement because he was in the OR.
After graduation, Harvey headed south to Johns Hopkins to begin residency in surgery. After the chaos of Boston, Harvey had a bit of trouble adjusting to the slower atmosphere of the Baltimore medical community. He missed his lively friends - and Kate. After only a few weeks, Harvey found a surgeon to train him - one that was more intense than he was but one who loved life. Dr. Halsted even taught Harvey a lifelong skill: joking with the patients at bedside. And Harvey did marry Kate.
Even with long work weeks, Harvey's life went by quickly surgery-by-surgery , and he decided to settle in Baltimore. It was a good choice because Johns Hopkins made him a professor, and he was referred all cases involving the CNS. He became a histological expert after a lab tech mixed up a sample; from then on he did his own labs. Kate often complained that she never saw her husband because he was either operating or writing. During his "first real job," Harvey became a father. Kate and Harvey decided to be half as productive as his parents and ended up with five: three girls and two boys.
It should be said that during his time in Baltimore, Harvey made discovery after discovery, giving him international recognition. He also traveled abroad to Europe, where he was introduced to groundbreaking surgical techniques that would transform American medicine. The honorary degrees were just around the corner.
After more than 10 years in Baltimore, Harvard wanted Harvey back. Brigham hospital made him surgeon-in-chief, leading to his becoming a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (a big deal), in part because of his extensive study of the pituitary gland. (For those of you who have dissected a cadaver, do you remember how tiny this organ is? Be amazed.) Of course, he also revamped their library.
Like any life worth living, Harvey became involved a war, the Great War, when he directed a base hospital in Europe and even became a colonel after opening Base Hospital Number 5 to treat the wounded stateside.
Harvey was already in his 50s, had written myriads of articles, monographs and read countless books, had five children, played tennis to stay in shape, and had saved tens of thousands of lives with brilliant surgery (oh, and introduced sphygmomanometry to the U.S.). But he hadn't won a Pulitzer Prize for Literature. That distinction came with a biography about a British knight, The Life of Sir William Osler. A year later, his two medical text books about neurological tumors were published. By the end of his life, Harvey had authored more than 10 books.
Harvey retired in his early 60s, in part due to his health. This was not too surprising considering his strenuous lifestyle. He didn't truly retire because Yale asked him to become a professor. He did not refuse and taught neurology and the history of medicine. During these twilight years, Harvey squeezed in time to make Yale home to the world's most comprehensive medical historical library and to write an autobiography featuring his service and discoveries in bacteriology during the war. He hadn't ever relented on his intense book collecting hobby, and he donated about 15,000 volumes to Yale.
Harvey lived a full life and died after a myocardial infarction in 1939 - with the curious distinction of having a disease named after him: Cushing's disease.
For more information about Harvey Williams Cushing, read Harvey Cushing: A Life in Surgery. by Michael Bliss (Oxford University Press, 2007).