Harvey Cushing: Biography, Inventions & Quotes

Instructor: Joshua Bowles

Joshua is a Sports Medicine and Athletic Training Instructor and has a Master's degree in Kinesiology.

In this lesson, we will discuss the life of the Founding Father of Neurosurgery, Dr. Harvey Cushing. We will also look at some of his career accomplishments, medical inventions and some of the more famous aspects that Dr. Cushing is known for.


Harvey Williams Cushing was born on April 8, 1869, in Cleveland, Ohio. He was the youngest of his 9 other siblings. Cushing became interested in medicine after attending the Cleveland Manual Training School, designed to be a trade school that focused on science and medicine. In 1891, Cushing graduated with his bachelor's degree from Yale University. He then moved to Harvard Medical School to pursue a career in surgery. During this time, medical school was only a 3-year requirement with an optional fourth year if desired. Cushing decided to enroll for a fourth year where he served at both Boston Children's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital. In June of 1895, Cushing graduated cum laude from Harvard Medical School and began his internship at Massachusetts General Hospital

Oil Painting of Dr. Harvey Cushing by Edmund Tarbell
Oil Painting of Harvey Cushing

After completion of his internship, Cushing was one of the few physicians at the time invited to study at the new Department of Surgery residency program at Johns Hopkins. It was there that Cushing was able to serve and train under the leadership of two of the founding giants of medicine, Dr. William Halsted who is regarded as the Founding Father of Modern Surgery; and Dr. William Osler, considered the Father of Modern Medicine. Dr. Cushing began to create a popular name for himself in the world of medicine performing the first modern brain surgery in the United States in 1902. This was the same year he married his wife, Katharine Crowell. They would have a total of 5 children together.

Over the next few years, Dr. Cushing continued to make advancements in the medical world while traveling around Europe and learning and gaining experience from world renowned physicians. Dr. Cushing then began training other medical students in neurosurgery eventually training 22 residents from the period of around 1911 to 1932. His teachings combined with the amount of literature and continued advancements he made in this surgery subspecialty changed the way people viewed and practiced neurosurgery. He became widely known as the Founding Father of Neurosurgery.

Dr. Cushing was famous for many of his published papers and books. In 1925 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for a biography he wrote on one of his mentors, Dr. William Osler. When World War 1 began Dr. Cushing was appointed a special position to create and oversee a mobile medical unit stationed in France. After the war, Dr. Cushing served as the Chief of Surgery at Harvard Medical School until he retired in 1933. Dr. Harvey Cushing passed away on October 7, 1939, from complications of a heart attack.

Inventions and Contributions

Dr. Cushing has a long list of medical accomplishments and inventions. His first major medical accomplishment occurred during the latter part of his medical studies after one of his patients died during a procedure in which he was anesthetizing. This incident combined with the lack of patient care that was being provided at that time in terms of vital monitoring led Dr. Cushing along with another fellow medical student, Ernest Amory Codman, to create and develop the first record keeping program to keep track of a patient's respiration rate and pulse during a procedure. This became known as the Ether Chart and is still very close to the type of records kept today.

Another important moment in American medicine came from the x-ray or radiograph as it is properly known. Dr. Cushing did not invent the x-ray, that credit goes to physicist Wilhelm Röntgen. However, Cushing is widely credited as being responsible for bringing this new technology at the time from Europe to the United States where he worked at Johns Hopkins.

In addition to technology, Dr. Cushing was always involved in research and advancing the medical profession. One example of this came in the year 1900 when he published findings that claimed the gastrointestinal region, meaning the stomach and small intestinal area could become sterilized or be free from bacteria; by withholding food and liquid for a certain period of time. This became vital in the world of gastrointestinal surgical procedures and is still widely practiced today.

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