Books, Brains, & Bones

New Haven is one city that I love to explore and I never mind going back. But when I do return I always find myself visiting the same area each time: Yale University. Not for any particular reason, I have never attended Yale as a student, but there is something about walking around the campus and just admiring the architecture and grandness of it all. Little did I know that there were some pretty fascinating and mysterious things that can be found within Yale’s perimeters.

My one weakness: books. I have a serious problem when it comes to books. So when I found this gem in New Haven I knew I had to see it for myself! The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library is one of the world’s largest libraries devoted entirely to rare books and manuscripts. It is Yale University’s principal repository of literary archives, early manuscripts, and rare books.


The Beinecke Library opened in October 1963, after 3 years of construction. The innovative design includes a six-story glass-enclosed tower of book stacks, holding approximately 180,000 volumes, inside a cube with large “windows” made of translucent Vermont marble panels, an inch and a quarter thick, in a granite frame. The exterior framework gestures to the golden ratio. Fifteen marble blocks run across the face of the building, five run vertically, and ten run along its depth, representing the ratio of 3:1:2. This is also a nod to the collections, as the pages of many early books and manuscripts are laid out in this proportion, considered pleasing to the eye and reverential to the text. The building both reflects and absorbs illumination. In addition to protecting the collections from sun damage, the marble panels absorb and reflect the light in warmer hues.


The library now holds more than one million books, many millions of manuscript pages, and tens of thousands of papyri, photographs, maps, posters, paintings, and art objects, as well as extensive audio/visual material and born-digital content. Collections range from ancient Egyptian fragments on papyrus through works by living authors. Major collections include Early Books and Manuscripts (pre 1500), Early Modern (1500-1800), Modern (post 1800), American Literature, Western American, German Literature, the Osborn Collection Of English literary and historical manuscripts, and the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters.

The Gutenberg Bible, the first Western book printed from movable type, and John James Audubon’s Birds of America are on permanent public display on the mezzanine.


Perhaps the most unique find I’ve come across to date is located in the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library in the sub-basement. Already sounds a bit sketchy, right?! All visitors are welcome to come and explore the Cushing Center, a.k.a. “brain room,” where whole brain specimens, tumor specimens, microscopic slides, notes, journal exerts, and over 15,000 photographic negatives dating from the late 1800’s to 1936 are on display.


Never heard of Dr. Cushing?? Harvey Cushing was the pioneer and father of neurosurgery. Born on April 8, 1869 in Cleveland, Ohio, he graduated from Yale University in 1891. He studied medicine at Harvard Medical School and received his medical degree in 1895. In 1896, Cushing moved to Johns Hopkins Hospital where he trained to become a surgeon under the watchful eye of William S. Halsted, the father of American surgery. By 1899 Cushing became interested in surgery of the nervous system and began his career in neurosurgery. 

Cushing meticulously recorded and documented each patient story. One incident in particular drove Cushing to begin to retain all specimens removed during operations or autopsy. Cushing would routinely examine each and every tissue specimen but in 1902, while at Johns Hopkins, the Pathology Department misplaced one of the specimens. This was not acceptable to Cushing and it was at this time that he decided he would retain specimens for further study. So it was this incident that started it all.

The Cushing Brain Tumor registry, as it is known today, is an immense archival collection. The registry itself is a treasure; a unique resource that documents the history of neurological medicine from its beginning.

Yale College in New Haven, CT is well-known for its secretive and elite student societies. These elite social clubs, usually labeled with some peculiar sounding name like Book and Snakes or Wolf’s Head, aren’t so much as secretive on the exterior as they are on the interior. We know they exist. However, each one of these societies contain a headquarters of some sort with access only granted to initiates of the organization. What happens on the inside… I don’t think we’ll ever know…

Walking around Yale, we took a glimpse of the oldest and most famous of these societies known as Skull and Bones. Below is some information taken from an article in Atlas Obscura that sheds some interesting light on a society so secretive that they remain virtually nonexistent to the outside world:

“Founded in 1832, it has inspired numerous stories due to its strange rituals and high-ranking roster of alumni. Three U.S. presidents were members of the Skull and Bones (William Howard Taft, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush), as were various media leaders, presidential cabinet members, congressmen, finance industry captains, university presidents, and Supreme Court justices. The Skull and Bones Tomb is a bare, symmetrical, sandstone building and the quintessential Yale tomb… imposing, windowless, and full of secrets. It was built in 1856, and has had wings and other additions built onto it in the intervening years. The Skull and Bones society is particularly renowned for exulting in the macabre. This extends from strange rites and initiation rituals to the objects that they keep in their inscrutable tomb. Death is apparently their décor of choice, with skeletons, skulls (both real and artificial), coffins, and other grim funeralia, statuary, and artwork adorning the inside of the tomb. Most infamously, some have claimed that in the early 1900s the Bonesmen stole the skull and bones of Geronimo, the Apache warrior and Native American hero. The rumors became pronounced enough that the descendants of Geronimo sued to get it back.”


Lindsay View All →

Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!

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