Very few times in the history of medicine has one man so dominated the development of a specialty that his birthday is celebrated as the day to recognize the field but that is case in Neurosurgery. The legacy of Harvey Cushing connects Ethiopian neurosurgery to his life’s work. When I entered Harvard Medical School in the Fall of 1977 I knew was interested in the field of neuroscience but I did not at first understand how I had entered into the hallowed historical grounds where Harvey Cushing made so many advances.
Harvey was destined to be a fourth generation physician who began his studies at Harvard Medical School after undergrad at Yale just before the beginning of the 20th century. After graduation in 1895 he and Ernest Codman pioneered physiologically monitoring in anesthesia which dramatically reduced the previous death rates. Subsequently he trained in general surgery at Johns Hopkins under William Halsted, the great pioneer of modern general surgery. Residency training at Hopkins was scientifically driven by William Osler who also mentored Cushing leading him to write a biography of Osler in 1926 which won a Pulitzter prize.
From 1902 to 1937 first at Harvard, then Hopkins, and finally at Yale, Cushing performed over 2000 operations of the brain pioneering surgical techniques for the treatment of brain tumors. He revealed how the physiology of the brain functions in terms of blood pressure and brain perfusion and how the pituitary gland works. Brain surgery went from being a last chance high risk procedure to having the ability to safely save lives through out the world because of his influence and teaching.
As a medical student at Harvard I saw patients on the grounds where Cushing lectured and went to operating room where Dr. Cushing performed brain surgery. I was fascinated and inspired by the life of Dr. Cushing and this experience in my early years led to my doing a special training in neuroscience as a medical student and then to train in neurosurgery after graduation.Later as resident in Neurosurgery at the University of Miami, Dr. Larry Page, who was trained at Harvard and the Boston Children’s Hospital by neurosurgeons who trained under Cushing , was our main brain tumor training surgeon.
Six years ago I started the Neurosurgery program at Ayder Comprehensive Specialized Hospital-Mekelle University in Ethiopia where today we perform over 1000 operations a year. We currently are training 16 neurosurgeons for different regions in Ethiopia as well as Somaliland and Somalia. Following Cushing’s model of a neurosurgeon who cares about the world and his patients and uses the scientific model of research to improve life, we have created a multidisciplinary research team which has made significant discoveries in the epidemic of neural tube defects in Ethiopia. Our research led to the government studying a novel prevention program of fortifying salt with folic acid.
Happy Birthday to Harvey Cushing you changed the world and helped inspire a kid from a small town in Texas to follow your example.