Einstein’s brain has been on a bit of a journey, and most people aren’t aware of it. There’s a lot of debate as to whether or not the late, famed intellect had a unique brain structure, but few would argue that the story that began following his demise is anything other than a cloak-and-dagger thriller.
Way back in April 18, 1955, Albert Einstein – the world’s most revolutionary theoretical physicist, the man whose discoveries sent shockwaves through the scientific community – passed away, at Princeton Hospital in New Jersey. He died of an abdominal aortic aneurysm, an enlarging (and rupturing) of the lower part of the major blood vessel that transports blood around the body.
Shortly after the autopsy was carried out at Princeton Hospital in New Jersey, the pathologist on duty – one Dr Thomas Harvey – decided to essentially steal Einstein’s brain.
As you can probably imagine, this wasn’t sanctioned, and it was a little more than controversial. Initially, no-one noticed, and Einstein – as per his wishes – was cremated the next day in Trenton, New Jersey. His ashes were then scattered in the Delaware River, with the exception of his brain and, oddly, his eyes, the location of which is uncertain even today.
His son, Hans, then found out that the body wasn’t exactly intact, and his fears were compounded upon reading the front page of The New York Times, which declared that the brain had indeed been removed for “scientific study”.
As reported by the BBC, it’s thought that, by stealing this brain and conducting research on it, Harvey wanted to make a name for himself – understandable, if you ignore the moral complications involved in thieving someone’s brain, let alone Einstein’s.
Einstein never suggested that his brain could be donated or used for medical research in this way. According to the Smithsonian, he told his biographer that he wanted to be cremated so “people don’t come worship at my bones”.
This rather curious form of borrowing organs after a patient had passed wasn’t actually prohibited back in the day, but that doesn’t exactly excuse the actions of anyone that engaged in it without permission from the family involved. Hans, as you would expect, was enraged when the true location of his father’s brain was revealed, but discussing it with Harvey, he was convinced that it was for the greater good.
National Geographic note that Harvey lost his job at Princeton Hospital. The brain was moved to a location in Philadelphia, where it was sliced up into 240 blocks and preserved as hundreds of slides in a form of cellulose, split between two jars. He kept most of it, but samples were sent off to institutions all over the country.