Hands of Gold, Feet of Clay -
The Harvey Cushing story

Cargill H. Alleyne, Jr.


“Hands of Gold Feet of Clay: The Harvey Cushing story” is a biographical historical drama of the life and times of the most famous neurosurgeon in history. Harvey Cushing, known as the “father of neurosurgery”, was a dynamic figure known as much for his contributions to neurosurgery and medicine as for his fiery personality and interpersonal conflicts. He performed over 2000 brain tumor operations during his lifetime and his quest to decrease the mortality of brain surgery was pursued with a single-minded purpose.

In the late 18th and early 19th century, neurosurgery did not exist as a distinct specialty. A few surgeons around the world dabbled in brain surgery but the mortality rates were extremely high. Adhering to a family tradition, Harvey Cushing enters Harvard medical school in 1891. Early conflicts with his father are a harbinger of his some professional and personal relationships. A catalyst in his quest to decrease the death rate for patients undergoing surgery occurs when patient to whom he was administering ether anesthesia died on the operating room table. He develops the first “ether charts”, a forerunner of the current anesthetic records.

After medical school he begins his training at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Desiring to expand his horizons, he defers marriage to his sweetheart and spends a year in Europe where he makes important scientific discoveries. He brings back an early blood pressure cuff that aids his quest to decrease to death rate. After marriage, his relationship is strained because of his long work hours. His children hardly see him. His quick temper at work alienates some of his colleagues and one even colludes with a reporter to publicize all his deaths, hoping to discredit him. After he operates on a patient three times but fails to find her tumor before she dies, his despair and curiosity leads him to the study of pituitary tumors and makes seminal discoveries. An intense rivalry is begun between Harvey and one of his trainees after they fail to see eye to eye on a research project. Harvey eventually is recruited to the Brigham in Boston where he continues his work.

After the U.S. joins World War I, he leads a medical unit to France where against the backdrop of the War he continues his quest to decrease mortality. His strong will angers some and he eventually he is threatened with court-martial for breaking some of the army rules. He eventually exonerated but near the end of the war develops an ailment that threatens his career. He returns home. As he continues to focus on his work, his relationship with his eldest son deteriorates. Just as they begin to see eye to eye, his son dies tragically in an automobile accident.

The bitter feud with his rival escalates over a technique that the latter has developed to localize tumors before surgery thereby avoiding surgeries in the wrong location. Harvey believes it is unsafe. As Harvey’s 2000th tumor case approaches his health deteriorates. He recovers sufficiently to perform the historic surgery with great fanfare. Soon after, at major meeting, Harvey announces his success at decreasing the mortality of brain surgery and turns the baton over to younger colleagues. He receives a standing ovation. He spends his twilight years at Yale with his long-suffering wife. At his funereal, patients with whom he had communicated on a yearly basis for decades show up to bid him an emotional goodbye.

Copyright 2006 Cargill H. Alleyne, Jr.
All Rights Reserved