Albert Einstein’s brain worked better than the ones in most human heads, and a lot of scientists wanted to know why. Einstein understood this, thought the notion silly and made plans for cremation of everything but his eyes. Those he bequeathed to his ophthalmologist, Dr. Henry Abrams.
Albert suffered chest pains on the evening of April 17, 1955 and passed away without a lot of warning at Princeton Hospital early the next day. Despite Albert’s desire to be completely cremated, Einstein’s brain was promptly preserved and whisked out the door.
That’s right. Someone bagged Einstein’s brain without approval, and it wasn’t returned for five decades.
Thomas Stoltz Harvey, M.D. was neither a neurologist nor a brain specialist, but he was the pathologist on duty at Princeton Hospital when renowned 20th century physicist Albert Einstein died from a burst aortic aneurysm at 1:15 a.m. on April 18, 1955. All the doctor was required or permitted to do was determine cause of death. Neither Einstein’s family nor his executor, Otto Nathan, permitted the pathologist to put Einstein’s brain in a jar and keep it for scientific study or any other reason. But that’s precisely what the doctor did.
Albert Einstein’s brain stem, cerebellum, cerebral cortex and cerebral arteries were extracted from his skull and immersed in a 10 percent formalin solution to prevent deterioration of the fragile tissue. The esteemed scientist’s ‘fixed’ brain was then photographed with a Exakta 35 mm camera from numerous angles. Afterward, Einstein’s brain was carefully dissected. 240 blocks of brain were sectioned via a procedure devised by Bailey and von Bonin in 1951, the blocks were “road-mapped” and numbered for reference. Slices of Einstein’s brain were preserved as 12 sets of 200 histological slides, explains the Oxford University academic publication, Brain: A Journal of Neurology.
Dr. Harvey had no legal authority to examine Albert’s amazing brain and did not receive the familial okay until days after the rest of Albert was cremated. The Einstein family was furious that the doctor had taken the brain and eyes but wished to avoid the publicity that would undoubtedly follow a public brouhaha about the brain. Retroactive permission was reluctantly granted by Hans Einstein with the stipulation that Harvey’s examination of the brain be done solely in the interest of science, according to National Public Radio.
The last thing Albert Einstein wanted was a public clamor in the wake of his demise. The non-observant Ashkenazim left specific instructions that his cremated remains were to be scattered in a never to be disclosed location. They were, except for his eyes and his brain. The esteemed thinker was cremated in Trenton, New Jersey.
Dr. Harvey refused to give up the preserved brain and lost his job at Princeton within months of Einstein’s end.
In 1978, Author Carolyn Abraham spoke with Dr. Harvey while researching her book Possessing Genius. Abraham thought that the doctor, who’d lost everything since bagging the brain, still hoped to publish his studies of Einstein’s brain despite not doing so for nearly 25 years.
“This was supposed to have been his great good luck charm but in fact it was much more like a relic cursed. He lost everything after he took that brain. He lost his job, he lost his marriage, he lost his career at Princeton. After the controversy over having taking the brain, he never regained his footing at the hospital.”
New Jersey Monthly cub reporter, Stephen Levy, spoke with Dr. Harvey in Wichita, Kansas in 1978. He went a step further than Ms. Abraham, however, and managed to get a gander at the actual brain of Albert Einstein in a jar. Levy asked to see some pictures of Einstein’s brain. Harvey grinned and motioned to a stack of cardboard boxes. The bottom box bore the label Costa Cider. In that box were two jars containing the remains of the brain of Albert Einstein. Levy described the find as “amazing.”
“A conch shell-shaped mass of wrinkly material the color of clay after firing. A fist-sized chunk of grayish, lined substance, the apparent consistency of sponge. And in a separate pouch, a mass of pinkish-white strings resembling bloated dental floss.”
After taking the famed brain on a road trip, Dr. Harvey gave possession of the Einstein brain in a jar to the chief pathologist at the University Medical Center of Princeton. Dr. Harvey died at the same facility in 2007 at age 94.
A 2011 look at Einstein’s brain revealed that the cerebral and prefrontal cortices, as well as the front right and occipital lobes, contained more folds than average. Some scientists believe this above-average amount of folds in the gray matter of the brain may indicate a superior ability for conscious thought.
Today, bits of Einstein’s brain in a jar and on slides can be viewed by appointment at the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. If you are a neurologist, scientist, or anyone else interested in taking a peek at Albert Einstein’s brain, there’s an app for that at the Apple Store.
[Featured Image via Hulton Archive/Getty Images]