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Dan Agin

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Bigotry and Racism in America: What Harvey Left Us

Posted: 07/20/09 12:04 PM ET

Grandchildren are prone to think of the lives of their grandparents as ancient history, a collection of sentimental anecdotes of no use in deciding what slogan to put on your tee-shirt. But history is history, it's our history, and before we argue about the way things should be it's wise to understand the way things were and how we got to where we are now. After watching elected representatives of Alabama and South Carolina badger an Hispanic woman who has more gumption, class, and intelligence in one of her little fingers than they have in their whole heads, I started thinking about Harvey Cushing, the great neurosurgeon at Harvard who did so much to poison us with his bigotry and racism, it's a wonder we're still here.

In 1901, the renowned neurophysiologist and future Nobel Prize laureate Charles Sherrington, while he was a professor in Liverpool, was visited by a young American named Harvey Cushing, a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Gracious as always with guests, Sherrington showed 32-year-old Cushing his animals and talked about his experiments. He allowed Cushing three weeks in his laboratory. Neither man knew that Cushing was destined to become the foremost neurosurgeon in the world.

From Cushing's letters to his parents, it's apparent he was hardly impressed with Sherrington. Was he offended by Sherrington's middle class origins? Cushing was in fact a dedicated snob, more impressed with one of Sherrington's gorillas than with Sherrington. Cushing wrote to his mother in America about the gorilla in Sherrington's laboratory: "Coal black -- I don't believe you could have distinguished his ear from a darkies [sic]. He smelled just like a dirty Negro -- behaved like one."

In later years, Harvey Cushing, a famous surgeon in his post at Harvard University, would be one of the major forces in American medicine restricting the entry of blacks, Jews, and Italians into American medical schools. (See the book by Michael Bliss: Harvey Cushing: A Life in Surgery, Oxford University Press, 2005.)

Cushing was particularly opposed to the hiring of Jews in medical departments. In 1925, he objected to having three Jews on his staff at Brigham Hospital in Boston. He wrote in a letter: "I have no objections to Hebrews, but I do not like too many of them all at once."

Cushing was even opposed to the hiring of black nurses in municipal hospitals, and in 1929 he wrote to Cleveland's director of public health and welfare: "I am sure that colored women would often make excellent trained nurses as they have shown themselves to be excellent nursery maids. But this will mean that colored men who are their friends and visitors will have to appear at the nurses' parties and receptions and this would be absolutely disastrous to the whole social status of your training school."

In 1938, Cushing was apparently more horrified by the method of the Nazi extermination of the Jews than by the extermination itself. He wrote in a letter, "What sticks in my craw is the Nazi treatment of the Jews. It would be almost better, it seems to me, to exterminate them as the Turks attempted to exterminate the Armenians."

Cushing was not a Southerner but a Northerner, born and raised in Cleveland in a long line of physicians that first settled in Cleveland in 1835. Aside from his skills as a surgeon, it seems Cushing was a hardened bigot and racist -- in effect, a moral imbecile. Was he merely a man of his time? He apparently had insufficient intelligence to rise above the ugly prejudices of that time. It's difficult to imagine that a physician with such strong aversions could isolate such aversions from his treatment of patients.

We live in a strange country. We have so much diversity in America, it can hardly be cataloged. And yet of all advanced countries in the world, we excel in tribal hatreds that apparently seep everywhere in the American psyche. We babble about "core values" while we do our best to ignore the festering rot that underlies those values. It's a rot left to us by people like Harvey Cushing -- and a rot that still bubbles in too many people in our South, and in the politicians elected by those people.

I wish a time will come for us when politicians of our South will no longer remind us of people like Harvey Cushing. Some people might think it's much better to forget the past, but I don't agree. We need the past to inform us why we're the way we are. Without that we will never change. And without change our hatreds may eventually destroy us.