Reflections on the contributions of Harvey Cushing to the surgery of peripheral nerves

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By the time Harvey Cushing entered medical school, nerve reconstruction techniques had been developed, but peripheral nerve surgery was still in its infancy. As an assistant surgical resident influenced by Dr. William Halsted, Cushing wrote a series of reports on the use of cocaine for nerve blocks. Following his residency training and a hiatus to further his clinical interests and intellectual curiosity, he traveled to Europe and met with a variety of surgeons, physiologists, and scientists, who likely laid the groundwork for Cushing's increased interest in peripheral nerve surgery. Returning to The Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1901, he began documenting these surgeries. Patient records preserved at Yale's Cushing Brain Tumor Registry describe Cushing's repair of ulnar and radial nerves, as well as his exploration of the brachial plexus for nerve repair or reconstruction. The authors reviewed Harvey Cushing's cases and provide 3 case illustrations not previously reported by Cushing involving neurolysis, nerve repair, and neurotization. Additionally, Cushing's experience with facial nerve neurotization is reviewed. The history, physical examination, and operative notes shed light on Cushing's diagnosis, strategy, technique, and hence, his surgery on peripheral nerve injury. These contributions complement others he made to surgery of the peripheral nervous system dealing with nerve pain, entrapment, and tumor.

Article Information

Address correspondence to: Aaron A. Cohen-Gadol, M.D., M.Sc., Goodman Campbell Brain and Spine, Department of Neurological Surgery, Indiana University, 1801 North Senate Boulevard, #610, Indianapolis, Indiana 46202. email:

Please include this information when citing this paper: published online January 7, 2011; DOI: 10.3171/2010.11.JNS10804.

© AANS, except where prohibited by US copyright law.



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    Removal of a neuroma. Please see the description of the operation in Case 1. Courtesy of Cushing Brain Tumor Registry at Yale University.

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    Left brachial plexus exploration and “anastomosis of VII root.” Please see the description of the operation in Case 2. Courtesy of Cushing Brain Tumor Registry at Yale University.

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    Findings on physical examination for the patient with ulnar nerve paresis presented in Case 3. The sketch shows the sensory findings. Courtesy of Cushing Brain Tumor Registry at Yale University.

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    Cushing's sketch of the operative findings in Case 3 describing “ulnar nerve release” through the “scar.” Courtesy of Cushing Brain Tumor Registry at Yale University.


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