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.
Reportedly, in 1955, after photographing the brain, the mischievous pathologist even commissioned a portrait of it. At one point, Harvey’s wife threatened to bin the brain, but Harvey, having gained employment at a biological lab in Wichita, kept it in a cider box beneath a beer cooler.
Despite being allowed to keep and research Albert’s curious cranial contents, Harvey wasn’t trained as a neurosurgeon. Although he shared tales of the brain with the beat poet William Burroughs, for some time, Einstein’s brain was, rather surprisingly, forgotten and underresearched – metaphorically and literally gathering dust.
Over the years, though, peer-reviewed studies on the brain did emerge. The first appeared in 1985, and another – published in the high-profile journal, The Lancet – made some waves at the time. Generally speaking, the objective was to see whether or not Einstein’s brain was structurally different from others.
The 1999 Lancet paper, entitled “The exceptional brain of Albert Einstein”, attempted to understand what the authors referred to as “the long-standing issue of the neuroanatomical substrate of intelligence”, with arguably limited success. That’s a story for a different time, though.
Media frenzies, interviews, research and surreal incidents involving the brain continued for some time. As reported by Gizmodo, in 1988, Harvey had his medical license revoked after failing a competency exam in Missouri. He did eventually return to Princeton, and at one point, he brought the brain with him to California to show to Albert’s granddaughter.
Harvey died in 2007. He donated the remains of the brain he still owned to Princeton Hospital shortly before his death.
Although briefly on display in the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Maryland, the brain can only now be seen in the The Mütter Museum, which is part of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
Anna Dhody, the curator and director of the museum’s research institute, told IFLScience that “Officially, to my knowledge, we are the only place in the world where the public can see Einstein’s brain on permanent exhibit.”
Despite having gone on a rather epic journey over the last few decades, these brain slices, at the least, are now somewhat peacefully in repose. Occasionally, the museum gets requests to do some research on the segments, which would ultimately damage them.
“I respectfully decline their requests,” Dhody noted.