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The Unknown Fate of Einstein’s Stolen Brain

BY Mukund Kashyap June 29, 2018
Segments of Einstein's Brain in Mutter Museum.

Segments of Einstein’s Brain in Mütter Museum. (The Mütter Museum Of The College Of Physicians Of Philadelphia)

Albert Einstein, the renowned scientist who formulated several theories that are crucial in the field of science perished on April 18, 1955, in Princeton Hospital. One would imagine the curiosity of scientists all across the world to have a closer look at the brain of a genius. However, one person named Thomas Harvey took this matter into his own hands. Thomas was the pathologist on duty the day Einstein expired. He took full advantage of his position and stole Einstein’s brain.

Whether or not Einstein wanted his brain to be studied after his death still remains a mystery. Regardless, Thomas Harvey preserved bits and pieces of his brain for several years and passed some on to his fellow pathologists. According to Brian Burrell, author of the book “Postcards from the Brain Museum”  Thomas obtained a “retroactive and reluctant blessing”  from his son Hans Albert. After he moved from Princeton Hospital to Philadelphia, Thomas preserved the 240 pieces of the brain which he carved out in celloidin, another form of cellulose and put these pieces into two jars and placed them in the basement of his house.

Thomas’s wife was not too pleased with someone’s brain being stored in their basement and pressurized him to discard it, which forced him to carry the pieces along with him to the Midwest. While he worked in Wichita, Kansas he placed the brain in a cider container and kept it beneath the beer cooler. His career tumbled and he moved to Missouri and lost his medical license following his failure in competency examinations in 1988. He finally settled in Lawrence, Kansas, where he worked in an assembly-line job in a factory of plastic-extrusion, all the while sending bits and pieces of Einstein’s brain to researchers all over the world.

Elbert Einstein in 1921.

Elbert Einstein in 1921. (Ferdinand Schmutzer / Wikimedia Commons)

Research and findings

True to Thomas’s intentions, researchers across the world worked on Einstein’s brain and published several papers. In 1985, Thomas, with his California collaborators, published a paper claiming that his brain had unusual amounts of two types of cell structures, namely neurons, and glia. Some other scientists refute those claims. That study was followed by five more similar studies, with one being published as recently as April 2014, which are considered to be flawed in a number of ways by a fraction of scientists.

Author Brian Burrell in his book studies the brains of famous personalities including Einstein, Lenin, and Walt Whitman. He remarked that nothing of scientific value came out from the study of Einstein’s brain, rather it became something that Einstein himself was terrified: a pop-culture icon. Thomas stole Einstein’s brain without his prior permission compromising Einstein’s dignity and did not follow what were said to be specific instructions given by Einstein about his remains; cremate them and scatter the ashes in secret.

It may be argued that Einstein wanted to discourage his idolaters with that move. Perhaps Thomas was inspired by Oskar Vogt’s study of Lenin’s brain, yet it must be noted that he had no expertise in understanding a brain. All his life after the incident had shades of a media circus.

The fate of Einstein’s brain

In 1997 Thomas embarked on a cross-country road trip with a freelance magazine writer called Michael Paterniti in a quest to meet Einstein’s granddaughter. They met her and intended to leave the brain with her. When she disclosed that she didn’t want it, they tried to leave the brain accidentally. Finally, the brain and the two men parted ways and the brain ended up in the lab where it all started some 40 years ago. Michael, however, published a book called “A drive with Mr. Albert”.

One of the largest collections of his brain is available at the Mutter Museum, Philadelphia to be seen by the public. But, Einstein’s brain isn’t the only organ that has been preserved. Dr. Henry Abrams, Einstein’s optometrist, is believed to have taken the possession of Einstein’s eyes from Dr. Thomas. It is considered that his eyes are sealed up in an NYC Safety Deposit case. Abrams asserts that the eyes will never be sold, whenever the talk of an auction gains mileage.

Enjoyed this article? Also, check out “Trepanation: Unusual Medical Procedure of Drilling Hole in the Skull“.

Recommended Read:
1. Einstein: His Life and Universe | By Walter Isaacson
2. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything | By Joshua Foer

Recommended Watch:
 Inside Einstein’s Mind: The Enigma of Space and Time (2015) | BBC

Recommended Visit:
Mütter Museum | Philadelphia, USA

Fact Analysis:
STSTW Media strives to deliver accurate information through careful research. However, things can go wrong. If you find the above article inaccurate or biased, please let us know at [email protected]


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