Signed, Harvey Cushing

A couple of birthdays ago, my wife wanted to buy me a book by or about William Osler. She had watched and listened as I read from his book on the history of medicine and as I searched online for quotes by him.

We had both heard of Harvey Cushing’s biography of Osler. On one of the larger online booksellers’ websites, she found the only available set at the time of this two-volume work, and ordered it.

A week or so before my birthday, I was on the phone with her during my lunch break when she opened the package. Of course, I didn’t know what she was doing. All I heard was the rustling of paper and then her words:

“Oh, my gosh!”

On July 18, I said the same thing when I opened volume one. There, on the first page, was a flowing inscription in brownish-black fountain pen ink, signed “Harvey Cushing”. The books were not sold with this fact stated, and would have fetched thousands of dollars if they had been.

This biography of the father of American medicine, written and signed by the father of modern neurosurgery, is a source of inspiration I often return to. It provided most of the phrases I used in my 2011 post “A Christmas Message to All Physicians from Sir William Osler”.

Osler, our continent’s foremost internist, may be many physician’s imaginary mentor, but Cushing was quite a man himself, and was America’s most renowned surgeon. He introduced blood pressure recording to the United States, for example. He became a professor at age 32, pioneered brain research and neurosurgery, described the disease we now call Cushing’s Disease, wrote 14 books, only 9 of which were about surgery, and earned honorary degrees in literature, science and the arts. After reaching the mandatory retirement age of surgeons in Massachusetts, 63, he continued to teach and also worked extensively as a military surgeon.

Thomas P. Duffy, in a 2005 article entitled “The Osler-Cushing Covenant”, writes about the two men:

“In 1900 William Osler established a friendship with Harvey Cushing that encompassed the personal and professional aspects of their lives for over two decades. Their shared participation in the covenant of medicine shaped an intense friendship and mentoring relationship that profited both individuals immeasurably. The choice of Cushing as the recipient of Osler’s mentoring had its origins in their rearing, avocations, and in the way of life that they shared. In Cushing, Osler identified a surrogate son who joined with him in defining the course of medicine and surgery over the next century.”

Osler, twenty years older than Cushing, opened his home to Cushing, as he had done to many other students, but with Cushing, the friendship also included Cushing’s young wife and their children, who knew William and Grace Osler as Aunt and Uncle.

In a twist of fate, Osler’s own son, Revere, born around the time Osler and Cushing first met, was critically wounded at age 21 in World War I, and was taken to a field hospital where the surgeon on duty was Harvey Cushing. Revere’s life could not be saved, and every year on the anniversary of his death, Osler wrote to Cushing, expressing his relief that his son had died in Cushing’s presence.

At Osler’s funeral, Cushing delivered a eulogy, in which he referred to Osler as his “spiritual father”. Osler’s widow then asked him to write her husband’s biography, a task that took him four years to complete. The 1,400 page book earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1926.

Two quotes by Harvey Cushing speak of his own compassion and optimism:

“A physician is obligated to consider more than a diseased organ, more even than the whole man – he must view the man in his world.”

“The capacity of man himself is only revealed when, under stress and responsibility, he breaks through his educational shell, and he may then be a splendid surprise to himself no less than to this teachers.”

Of Osler, his mentor and father figure, Harvey Cushing writes:

“He advanced the science of medicine, he enriched literature and the humanities; yet individually he had greater power. He became a friend of all he met – he knew the workings of the human heart metaphorically as well as physically. He joyed with the joys and wept with the sorrows of the humblest of those who were proud to be his pupils. He stooped to lift them up to the place of his royal friendship, and the magic touchstone of his generous personality helped many a desponder in the rugged paths of life. He achieved many honors and many dignities, but the proudest of all was his unwritten title, the Young Man’s Friend.”

Words of a son; signed, Harvey Cushing.

1 Response to “Signed, Harvey Cushing”

  1. 1 NPs Save Lives December 22, 2013 at 11:02 pm

    Unfortunately, there are almost no country docs out there in the field and almost non-existent is a physician who takes care of the entire patient. Too often, the pressures of the insurance companies and the threat of lawsuits has interfered with the old ways. I was working recently with a PA who was upset with me that I drew her attention to the myriad of complaints from patients. The majority was that she didn’t appear to listen and that she came across cold and uncaring. She flat told me that she had no intention of “letting her patients know anything about her life” and that she had no interest in theirs beyond what was the complaint of the day. How sad…. I pride myself as a NP that I do share my life with my patients and I ask them how there’s is going. Most medical complaints of headaches, stomach aches and back pain are not really a medical issue, but a somatic response to stressors in their lives. I had since left that office and I will grieve the patients that I had to leave in her “un-care.”

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Osler said “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis”. Duvefelt says “Listen to your patient, he is telling you what kind of doctor he needs you to be”.



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