There has been a lot of sensationalize about exactly what happened to Albert Einstein’s brain after he died. The TV Show Dark Matters ran a show a year ago called “Stealing Einstein’s Brain,” which suggests that the brain was stolen after Einstein’s death. That’s not entirely true. However, it’s certainly true that the brain of Einstein has not been has not been treated with the level of care and accountability that it should have been. The true story is, in fact, quite strange.
Here I try to present the facts without any morbid sensationalizing.
What Really Happened:
In the early 1950’s, Albert Einstein resided in Princeton, New Jersey. By this time, an aging Einstein had lived to see himself become an icon and a living legend. This was not something that he was always comfortable with. Einstein contributed relatively little to science in his later years, but his accomplishments had rocketed him to a level of fame previously unknown to theoretical physicists. He was temperamental about the press and often became tired of being interviewed and photographed. In 1951, on Einstein’s 71st birthday, after being photographed several times by press photographers, he attempted to ruin a UPI photographer’s image by sticking out his tongue – inadvertently creating one of the 20th centuries most iconic images.
Preferring to be modest about his achievements and never becoming entirely comfortable with his level of fame, Albert Einstein did not wish that any monuments be built in his honor. Knowing that his grave site would surely become a place of pilgrimage, he asked not to be buried but to be cremated and have his ashes scattered.
Also, in the early 1950’s, Yeshiva University was planning the creation of a new school of medicine. The school was to focus on the most advanced areas of medical science and provide world class training to students of any ethnic background. It was decided to name the school in honor of Albert Einstein, a humanitarian, scientist and ethnic jew. Einstein initially declined the honor, pointing out that he was a physicist and knew nothing of medicine. Dr. Harry Zimmerman was appointed to be the first director of the school. He approached Einstein and persuaded him to allow the school to be founded in his name. This, of course, became the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Dr. Zimmerman became well acquainted with Albert Einstein as a result of the founding of the college. Zimmerman’s background was in neuropathology, a field which was making enormous strides in the 1950’s. Aware of Einstein’s intention to be cremated, Dr. Zimmerman asked whether he would allow for his brain to be examined after his death. Zimmerman cited the great interest in Einstein’s mind and abilities and the need to avoid losing an opertunity to examine a potentially unique human subject. Einstein, who was always a supporter of scientific endeavor, agreed to this, but stipulated that it only be for the purposes of scientific study.
After Einstein’s death, his permission to have his brain removed and examined would be clouded in controversy. Einstein had not given formal permission in his will, but a number of witnesses would testify that he had approved the use of his body for scientific purposes. Shortly after his death, when his family was notified of the intention to remove and study his brain, his son, Hans Einstein, granted permission as long as it was only for valid research, published in scientific journals and in no way sensationalized. Other members of Einstein’s family later denied any permission was ever given.
The best evidence available would seem to indicate that Einstein was indeed agreeable to the use of his brain for scientific purposes, but he certainly would not have agreed to the extent of what would actually happen to his mortal remains.
Part 1: The Death Of Albert Einstein and the Dissection of the Brain:
On April 17, 1955, Albert Einstein was checked into Princeton Hospital complaining of chest pains. He was suffering from an acute aortic aneurism. Although the 76 year old Einstein had been in general declining health, the event was a relative surprise and Einstein had in fact, been planning on delivering a television speech congratulating the 7th anniversary of the State of Israel just a day later. He declined surgery to attempt to repair the aneurism, although it’s questionable whether it would have worked anyway. Early the next morning, Einstein died in his hospital bed.
At the time of Einstein’s death, Dr. Thomas Harvey was the pathologist on duty at Princeton Hospital. Dr. Harvey had been a student of Dr. Harry Zimmerman. Upon hearing of the death, Dr. Zimmerman called Dr. Harvey and explained to him the need to remove the brain for examination. He later would say that he asked Dr. Harvey whether he should travel to Princeton to conduct the autopsy himself or whether Dr. Harvey could preform it. Dr. Harvey replied that he could conduct the autopsy and he would make sure that the brain and spinal cord would be preserved for examination by Dr. Zimmerman or others.
This is where things start to get extremely strange.
A standard autopsy was conducted. Dr. Harvey removed the brain and set it aside for examination. The human brain is very soft, and as such, it cannot be dissected and sectioned immediately after death. Instead, a process of fixing and stabilizing the brain must be undertaken. The eyeballs were also removed, although not by Harvey. Dr. Henry Abrams, who had been Einstein’s ophthalmologist removed the eyeballs using scissors and forceps.
There is no known reason why his eyes would be removed. They should not have been of any special interest for research and neither Dr. Zimmerman nor anyone else seems to have requested special examination of the eyes. Yet they were removed and ended up being taken by Abrams, apparently as some kind of personal keepsake. This bizarre fact was apparently not widely known until it was revealed in 1994 that Dr. Abrams still had the eyes in a safe deposit box at a bank in New Jersey.
It is also unclear why Abrams would have had access to the post-mortum, who gave him permission to enter and whether Harvey or anyone else was aware that he would be taking the eyes. Abrams was not a pathologist and really had no business being there. He was also not a close friend of Einstein nor intimately involved in Einstein’s medical care. His relationship with Einstein was limited to the fact that Einstein would come to his office once a year for his annual vision exam. He never even made glasses for Einstein. Although Einstein was slightly near-sighted, he prefered to use dime store magnifying glasses rather than having prescription optics.
Henry Abrams died three years ago. At last reports the eyes are still held in the bank vault. Periodically, reports have been made that the eyes were slated to be auctioned. Abrams always denied this and said he would never sell them, but with his death, the ultimate fate of Einstein’s eyes remains uncertain. In all likelihood, any attempt to sell or display the eyeballs would result in action by the surviving members of Einstein’s family. It is not clear who the “owner” of the eyes is, but there’s no evidence Abrams ever had any legal permission to obtain or keep the eyes.
Having his eyes means the professor’s life has not ended. A part of him is still with me
As for Einstein’s brain, it was examined and prepared for dissection and further examination. Initial examination reveled the brain to be quite normal. It was of approximately average size and shape for an adult male. The lateral sulcus, a fissure that runs through the side of the brain was found to be shorter than average on Einstein. Some of the lobes of the brain were slightly larger than normal. There has been conjecture about whether any of the features of Einstein’s brain could be related to his intellectual abilities. However, there does not appear to be any single feature that represents an obvious departure from the norm. While the brain is above average, in some respects, there is nothing abnormal or remarkable about it.
The brain was cut photographed from numerous angles. It was then cut down the center and the various sections were divided. Measurements were made using calipers and sketches and observational notes were prepared. It has been reported that after initial examination, Harvey was asked by Dr. Webb Haymaker, a well known pathologist at the US Armed Forces Institute for Pathology attempted to get Harvey to relinquish the brain to the custody of the AFIP or another large pathology institute for study, but Harvey declined and insisted on personally carrying out the sectioning and study of the material.
One of the original pathology photos of the brain before being sectioned
(labels have been added but the image is an actual photograph)
The brain was then brought to the University Of Pennsylvania, where it was taken to a histology laboratory. The presence of the brain was kept quiet, as it was realized that it would generate great interest. The majority of the brain were embedded in a material called celloidin and then sliced into thin sections to be mounted on slides. A number of different types of stains were used to aid in the examination of different features of the tissue. Reports are that Harvey kept the brain material with him, stored in a jar and would travel to the lab at the University of Pennsylvania regularly, over the course of three, requesting to have another section of the brain sliced for examination. By the available accounts, the procedure was done with skill and professionalism by the staff at the University of Pennsylvania and the slides are of a very high quality. The brain was ultimately cut into 240 celloidin blocks. From these, a total of twelve microscope slide sets were prepared.
The final fate of all twelve slide sets is not known. Harvey kept a large portion of the slides and at least one (and possibly more) were sent to Dr. Harry Zimmerman. Zimmerman may have also received additional blocks of the brain, although this is unknown. Some reports have indicated that Zimmerman received up to one sixth of the brain material, but that would seem to conflict with others that indicate he only received slides or other materials. It may be that he received one sixth of the slides, which would make sense as twelve sets were produced, therefore he may have received two sets of slides.
In either case, Harry Zimmerman seems to have received the largest portion of the tissue of anyone at the time except for Thomas Harvey, who retained the bulk of the brain. Zimmerman’s examination of the samples found no unusual pathology. He kept them until his death in 1995. Today, they most likely reside at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Other sets were sent to researchers at MIT and the University of Illinois. There has been little information on the final disposition of these samples. They may still be in the custody of their respective institutions. Another set of forty six slides were given to Dr. William Ehrich at Philadelphia General Hospital’s School of Medicine. These remained with Ehrich until the 1970’s when the gave them to a neuropathologist named Lucy Rorke. Rorke recently donated the slides to the Mutter Museum, where they are currently on display, despite this being directly against the requests of Einstein and his family. A portion of the set was also loaned to the British Museum for public display.
The remainder of the slides, which totaled in the hundreds were kept by Thomas Harvey. Over the ensuing years, he would give some of the slides to researchers and institutions.
The bulk of Einstein’s brain, which by this time, had been cut into portions of various sizes, remained with Dr. Thomas Harvey. Harvey’s stewardship of the brain materials has been the subject of conflicting reports. Those who aided in the preparation at the University of Pennsylvania described him as being extremely professional in his handling and distribution of materials and note the care that was taken to produce the highest quality samples and account for all material.
However, other evidence, including his removal of the eyes and insistence on personally keeping the brain calls into question the professionalism and care of Dr. Harvey. The competency of Harvey was also called into question by Dr. Haymaker and others, who felt that, as a general pathologist, Harvey was not qualified to handle the research aspects by himself and that his motives for being personally involved at every stage were questionable.
Part 2: The Departure of Thomas Harvey from Princeton And Fading Into Obscurity
Thomas Harvey was dismissed from Princeton in 1960. (Some reports say it was shortly after Einstein’s autopsy, but the best information seems to indicate it was in the year 1960) The exact reason for his dismissal is, as with many things, the subject of conflicting reports. According to some reports, his dismissal was related to the fact that, despite committing to the use of Einstein’s brain for scientific study, Harvey had failed to publish any data at all by 1960.
After leaving Princeton Hospital, Harvey kept the brain (or what was left of it) in three jars at his New Jersey home. Various sources indicate that they were mason jars or mayonnaise jars. Based on the best accounts and photographs, it appears the material was stored in two large glass sample containers and one mason jar, of type used for storage of jams jellies etc. It is highly unusual for a pathologist to take samples of such importance, especially of human remains, and bring them to his personal residence. The question of legal ownership of the brain has never been fully resolved, but it would seem that, in keeping with the wishes of Einstein and his family, it should have, at the very least, been kept by a legitimate scientific institution.
Shortly after leaving Princeton Hospital, Dr. Harvey’s marriage broke down and his wife filed for divorce. Over the next several years, Harvey moved several times. First to the Midwest then to Missouri and then Kansas. He worked a number of jobs including supervising a pathology lab and opening his own small medical practice. He kept the brain with him as he traveled from place to place, reportedly storing the jars in a cider box and at one point, keeping it under a beer cooler.
Harvey would claim that he kept the brain in order to preserve it for medical research and make it available for study, but by the 1970’s, both Thomas Harvey and the existence of the preserved brain material had fallen into obscurity. No scientific research papers had been published on the brain and nor had researchers shown great interest in further study. It is also worth noting that Harvey was not himself qualified to do in depth scientific study of the brain. Although he frequently stated he was actively studying the material and intended to publish findings, Harvey was himself a pathologist, not a neurologist or a neuropathologist. Given the importance of the brain, it seems odd that a general pathologist would be the primary study scientist.
Pathological examination by Dr. Zimmerman and others had found that the brain was not remarkable on either the macroscopic or microscopic levels. Small amounts plaque had been found, which, although a sign of Alzeimers in high concentrations, were low and within normal ranges for a 76 year old. Some features, including the truncated lateral sulcus and possible abnormalities of the partial lobe had been noted, but these were not considered to be significant enough to warrant much scientific interest.
In 1978, Einstein’s brain once again came to the attention of the public. Reporter Steven Levy was working for the magazine “New Jersey Monthly” when his editor approached him with the assignment of tracking down what happened to Einstein’s brain. By this time, the fact that it had been removed and preserved had largely been forgotten, but the editor had seen it mentioned in a biography of Einstein and thought that it would make for an interesting story. Levy’s research eventually lead him to the conclusion that Dr. Harvey was still in possession of the brain.
Levy tracked Dr. Harvey to Wichita Kansas, and traveled out to meet with him. He discovered that indeed Harvey was still in possession of the brain and it was in fact in glass jars within box labeled “Costa Cider” that was tucked away discretely in Dr. Harvey’s office. In August 1978 Levy published a story entitled “I Found Einstein’s Brain,” bringing the forgotten specimen back to the attention of the world. The article caused a short-lived media circus, with numerous interviews of Dr. Harvey and stories appearing in numerous news outlets. However, by the early 1980’s, the story was, again, largely forgotten.
The image on the right shows the actual mason jar in which a large piece of Einstein’s cerebellum was kept along with other pieces of the rear portion of his brain and brain stem. This image is from a later date, but this is how it has been stored since the time of Einstein’s death.
For his part, Dr. Harry Zimmerman, the man who was largely responsible for the brain being studied, had become highly suspect of Thomas Hervey’s motives and competency. He began deflecting inquiries by saying that Harvey had died, although he knew this not to be the case.
Part 3: Renewed Interest
In the early 1980’s, after years without much interest, Thomas Harvey finally was approached by a serious inquiry about continued scientific investigation of Albert Einstein’s brain. Dr. Marian Diamond of UCLA had been conducting research on brain cells in animals and humans. She had learned about Dr. Harvey and the sections of brain from the 1978 article. Diamond contacted Harvey and requested samples for research.
Diamond received a series of samples from the material kept by Harvey. Diamond describes the samples provided to her as being four pieces of brain, each about the size of a sugar cube, embedded in celloidin and shipped to her office from Dr. Harvey in a fluid-filled mayonnaise jar. From these, she prepared a series of slides.
After examining the samples, Diamond concluded that portions of Einstein’s brain had a significantly higher number of gial cells than other subjects. Gilial cells are not responsible for thought but do help carry nutrients and therefore could explain an increased ability for neurological activity. The findings were punished in 1985. The study only compared the Einstein samples to a total of eleven other adult males, and, as such, the importance of these findings remains highly uncertain. However, Diamonds study is noteworthy in that it was the first time in the thirty years since his death that a scientific study on Einstein’s brain had been published.
In the early 1990’s, Harvey was once gain contacted with a request for a sample of the brain tissue. This time it came from Evelyn Einstein, the granddaughter of Albert Einstein. Evelyn Einstein had been adopted by Albert Einstein’s son Hans Einstein. Although she was his adopted granddaughter, Evelyn believed that she may, in fact, have been the illegitimate daughter of Albert Einstein. She had a resemblance to Albert Einstein and had heard family rumors that she was the product of an affair between Einstein and a ballet dancer. Evelyn had hoped that a sample of the brain could provide DNA for a paternity test. She received two samples, described as “about the size of a quarter” for analysis. Unfortunately, the genetic material was found to be severely degraded, preventing a paternity test from being conducted.
Whether not Evelyn Einstein was indeed the daughter of Albert Einstein or a biological relative at all remains a unknown. It’s possible that a different sample or the use of newer DNA technologies could yield a result, but none have been conducted since the attempts made in the early 1990’s. Evelyn died in 2011 at the age of 70.
Part 4: It gets ridiculous
By the early 1990’s, things were not going well for Thomas Harvey. In 1988, he had lost his medical license after failing a competency exam. Harvey was living in a small apartment just outside of Lawrence, Kansas. Harvey was now approaching 80, an age by which most MD’s would have long retired. One can only assume that he must not have planned for his retirement or set aside any assets, because, rather than playing golf and traveling, Thomas Harvey took a job at a plastics factory to support himself. The elderly Harvey started off as an apprentice-level extruder.
Since the divorce from his first wife in New Jersey, Harvey had been married two more times. Both marriages were short lived and he does not seem to have stayed in one place for more than a few years.
In 1994, Harvey and the brain (or what was left of it) would again come into the spotlight. Kenji Sugimoto, a mathmatics professor from Japan had a lifelong fascination with Einstein, and upon learning about the removal of Einstein’s brain, he traveled to the United States to try to discover what had become of the material. He was followed by British filmmaker Kevin Hull, who filmed the journey and produced the documentary Relics: Einstein’s Brain.
The show is nothing short of bizzare. Sugimoto, a portly, clumsy and awkward man speaks only broken English. He travels first to Princeton and then to the Albert Einstein Medical College where he meets Dr. Zimmerman. Zimmerman informs shows him some of the samples he has, but tells him no additional materiel remains and that Dr. Harvey is deceased. Sugimoto then travels across the US, retracing the steps of Thomas Harvey in an attempt to locate the remaining brain material. Along the way he meets Dr. Marian Diamond, Evelyn Einstein and stops at the laboratory which was conducting the paternity test.
Eventually, Sugimoto tracks down Thomas Harvey at his home in Kansas. When he requests to see the brain, Harvey brings out two glass jars containing the pieces. At this point, Sugimoto makes a shocking request: he asks Harvey is he could have a small piece of the brain to keep as a personal memento. Harvey says “I don’t see any reason why not” and proceeds to retrieve a carving knife and a cutting board from his kitchen. He cuts a small section from a sample he identifies as being part of Einstein’s brain stem and cerebellum and gives it to Sugimoto in a small container. In the final scene, Sugimoto celebrates by taking his piece of the brain to a local kereoke bar and singing a favorite Japanese song.
Finding a copy of this program has proven very difficult, but there is one recording that can be found on Youtube. It is taken from a video tape of a Swedish broadcast. It is therefore subtitled and the quality of the video is marginal. The program is one hour long. It very very much worth watching
Given the strange, almost unbelievable events shown in documentary, some have questioned whether it is fact or fiction. However, based on all available data, the basic premise and the events shown in the documentary are indeed true. As is usually the case with this type of film, some of the incidental scenes, such as Sugimoto traveling and making phone calls may have been staged and the footage and screenplay was edited for dramatic effect. None the less, the events appear to be genuine.
Harvey did indeed live and work in the places he is shown, Evelyn Einstein and Marian Diamond did indeed speak to Sugimoto and Dr. Zimmerman was known to have tried to discourage those looking for Thomas Harvey by stating that he had died. Zimmerman seems to have himself been uncomfortable with being part of the production. Newspaper accounts confirm much of what is shown. Many years later, Professor Sugimoto was tracked down at Kinki university in Japan. He still has the piece of brain, which he considers a prized possession.
In 1995, Thomas Harvey sent an fax to Dr. Sandra Witelson at the McMaster University in Ontario Canada offering her some of Einstein’s brain material for study. Witelson had not requested the material and the offer was unsolicited and a complete surprise. Apparently Harvey had heard of Witelson’s research into neuropathology and her establishment of the “brain bank,” where samples of human brain were kept for study. The fax simply asked : Do you want to study the Brain of Albert Einstein? Dr. Witelson replied “Yes.” The 83 year old Harvey then personally drove from his home in Kansas to Hamilton, Ontario to deliver a large portion of the remaining brain. By some accounts this is 1/5 of the material. The material is still at the Brain Bank at McMaster University.
Thomas Harvey made a few more moves, taking the brain with him each time before finally moving back to New Jersey and to his final years in Hopewell Township. It was there that he met Michael Paterniti. In 1997 Paterniti and Harvey set off on a road trip across the United States with Einstein’s brain. Exactly whose idea it was to do so is in dispute. The apparent motive is to either find researchers who wish to further study the brain or to “return” the brain to Evelyn Einstein. Along the way, the two stop and meet Kevin Hull, Harvey’s old neighbors and a variety of other players in the strange history of Einstein’s brain. The trip would be chronicled in Paterniti’s book “Driving Mister Albert.”
It is important to note here that the road trip taken by Harvey and Paterniti appears to be nothing more than a stunt to write an interesting book. Evelyn Einstein never requested the brain material and did not want it. When she was approached, she found Harvey’s preoccupation with the brain “creepy.” Had the goal been simply to take the brain to her, it would have been much easier to fly or even send it by a courier service. Instead, Paterniti decided to take an old Buick Skylark, which only served to add to the colorful and legendary mystique of the story. He describes Harvey’s personality and others in a manner that appears to be more styled for literary entertainment than documenting the transportation of the mortal remains of a great scientist.
Indeed, Paterniti was accused of taking advantage of the elderly Harvey and exploiting the opertunity to write such a book by some in the scientific and medical communities. Some of the pathologists and technicians who had worked on the initial study of the brain at the University of Pennsylvania were especially offended by the portrayal.
Hughes and Fox were especially offended by the 2000 book Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain, by the journalist Michael Paterniti. He had befriended Harvey and indulged his impulsive desire to take the brain to the West Coast. The former pathologist seemed to have a vague idea of discussing research possibilities with neuroscientists and showing the brain, perhaps even leaving part of it as a gift, to Evelyn Einstein, the scientist’s granddaughter, who lived near San Francisco. (She died this past April.)
The trip took place in 1997. In Paterniti’s narrative, Harvey, then 84, came across as a genial, shambling eccentric; the writer, as an eager, wonderstruck but clueless, 30-something partner on a “buddy” adventure; and the pieces of brain, as the ludicrous link between them.
In any case, neither Evelyn Einstein nor anyone else seemed to want the brain and thus, it returned once again to Thomas Harvey’s home in New Jersey.
Part 5: The final disposition
In 1998, Thomas Harvey finally relinquished custody of the remaining portions of the brain. He gave the material to Dr. Elliot Kraus, chief pathologist at Princeton University Medical Center. At the time the tissue was finally turned over, 170 pieces of the original 240 remained. Most of the rest having been sectioned into slides or given to other researchers. The condition of the materials has not been fully described. Given that storage conditions it’s clear that there has been much degradation, but the sections have also been described as being protected and well enough preserved to allow for further study. The stained microscope slides are generally described as being of a very good quality and condition.
Thomas Harvey is reported to have done a few more interviews in 2005, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s death. He died in 2007 at the age of 94 at the University Medical Center at Princeton. At the time he possessed slides and other materials, but none of the bulk portions of the brain.
In 2010, the estate of Thomas Harvey donated the remaining materials related to the study of Albert Einstein’s brain to the National Museum of Health and Medicine. This includes fourteen previously unseen photographs of the brain before it was sectioned. The National Museums of Health And Medicine reportedly now house a total of 560 slides from Einstein’s brain. It’s not entirely clear whether all of these came from Harvey’s estate or if some may have been from the sets sent to other researchers.
Many of the others who were involved in the history of Einstein’s brain have also died. As mentioned, Evelyn Einstein died in 2011. Harry Zimmerman died in 1995, shortly after the documentary “Relics: Einstein’s Brain” was first aired. All of Albert Einstein’s immediate family has long died. Evelyn Einstein was the last of Albert Einstein’s grandchildren to die. Before her, his last biological grandson Bernhard Caesar Einstein died in 2008. Einstein’s closest living relatives are therefore his great grandchildren. While they may have some legal claim to the biological material, or at least, could try to contest it, none of them seem to have taken much interest.
In total six scientific papers have been published relating to Albert Einstein’s brain. One was the previously mentioned Dr Marian C. Diamond, another was conducted in 1996 from materials obtained from Harvey by Dr. Britt Anderson at the University of Alabama and another paper was published in 1999 by McMaster University, based on the material received from Harvey and historic records and photos. A more recent paper examined the newly discovered photos and concluded that Einstein’s brain contained several structural anomalies. For the most part, these papers have been more presentations of a hypothesis than actual studies.
The most often quoted study, the 1985 study by Dr. Diamond has been disputed as being invalid due to the fact that brain samples used for comparison were from a small group and all were much younger than Einstein, with the oldest being only 64. Pathologists have pointed out that the differences in cell distribution are explainable due as a result of known changes that occur with age.
While these results may be interesting, their significance remains in dispute and the general consensus remains that there is nothing about the brain that is very much different than most other brains and that the differences that have been noted cannot be conclusively cited as explanations of Einstein’s genius. None of the papers or examinations have actually generated anything truly groundbreaking or done anything to significantly advance our understanding of neurology. At most, the studies of the brain can be called inconclusive.
The final (known) resting places of what is left of Einstein are thus the following:
- A bank vault in New Jersey – Contains Albert Einstein’s preserved eyeballs, apparently not having been moved by the estate of Dr. Henry Abrams, who died in 2009.
- About National Museum of Health and Medicine – 560 mounted slides of the brain along with other materials such as original photographs. Possibly other samples.
- Princeton Medical Center – Reported to have 170 of the original 240 blocks of the brain. This represents the vast majority of the brain. Most of the brain is currently embedded into blocks of celloidin. A small portion of the brain, including the brain stem and cerebellum does not seem to have been embedded into blocks and is instead preserved on its own in a mason jar.
- McMaster University “Brain Bank” – In 1995, Thomas Harvey sent a number of pieces of the brain to Dr. Sandra Witelson at McMaster University. By some reports as much as one fifth of the brain, which would make this the largest holder aside from Princeton. Witelson had not requested the material, but Harvey apparently offered it in an unsolicited fax. The materials are now held in the “brain bank” at the university, along with samples from other brains for study. McMaster University may be presumed to have most of the 66 blocks not accounted for in the Princeton Medical Center inventory or sent to Dr. Marian Diamond.
- Professor Kenji Sugimoto’s university office in Japan – A small piece of the brainstem and cerebellum, kept as a memento.
- The University of California, Berkely – This is where the samples sent to Marian C. Diamond were examined and presumably would still be located here in her custody. The original material was four sugar-cube sized samples from the brain. At least part of the samples were sectioned into slides.
- The University of Alabama – Samples provided to Dr Britt Anderson for a 1996 study are kept at this location. Most likely these are slides from the preperations made by Upenn, although it’s uncertain. In either case, it is a relatively small amount of material.
- The Albert Einstein Medical College – Dr. Zimmerman’s collection of samples was stored here until his death in 1995. Further information on the disposition is not available, but it is likely they are still stored here. Zimmerman’s collection included a variety of samples from different parts of the brain.
- The Mutter Museum – A series of slides is held by the museum and is now on display to the public.
- The British Museum - Some of the samples from the Mutter Museum were loaned to the British Museum for public display.
The above locations are where the majority of known pieces seem to be located. It is reported that there are other slides which were made and are unaccounted for. Some reports have also mentioned Argentina and Hawaii as being locations where known samples (probably only slides) exist. The small fragments sent to a laboratory for genetic tests by Evelyn Einstein were most likely destroyed in the attempt to extract usable DNA. An article published by the University of Pennsylvania mentions another institution which declined to be named. It’s not clear if this may be one of the institutions mentioned above or another.
There’s also an app for iPhone and iPads that lets you look at much of the collection of Einstein brain samples and data in the collection of the National Museum of Health and Medicine. All the samples have been scanned at high resolution and for $9.99 you can explore Einstein’s brain on your iPad.
Einstein may have approved of the use of his remains for scientific study, but clearly, undoubtedly, this is not what he would have wanted.
A few notes about various sources and myths:
1. Some sources say that Harvey was dismissed shortly after the autopsy because of his conduct. This is not true. He was dismissed in 1960.
2. Many sources quote the number of sectioned blocks that the brain was ultimately cut into as being 170. This is not accurate and seems to come from confusion with the fact that 170 blocks remained when the material was finally given to Princeton Medical Center. In total 240 blocks were produced. The majority of the remaining 70, and perhaps all of the remaining 70 are at McMaster University.
3. Whether or not Harvey ever removed additional portions from the large block samples to be sent to researchers or others is not entirely clear due to lack of records. Some reports seem to be mistaken here when they say that he carved up the brain for distribution. All requests from researchers appear to have been filled from his collection of hundreds of slides. The exceptions being the large number of tissue blocks sent to McMaster, the piece given to Professor Kenji Sugimoto.
4. Various sources paint a vastly different picture of Thomas Harvey. Some say he was a highly responsible and professional pathologist, but much of his behavior seems to indicate otherwise. In the Book “Driving Mr Albert,” he appears more a colorful character perfect for such a book. He is also described as being incompetent and strange. Of course, the real picture is much more complex. In his later years, he does seem to have become less and less competent. It may well be that his life just didn’t stay together very well after his marital problems. Regardless, any source that claims he was entirely professional or entirely incompetent seems to be too simplistic.
5. The remaining samples are often referred to as “the brain” but this is not accurate as the brain does not exist as any single large intact entity. The organ is in pieces.
6. Sources are directly in conflict about whether Einstein gave his permission or not. As noted above, there is no formal written permission, but there is strong evidence that he approved of the brain being used for scientific purposes as did his son. But in either case, it is absolutely clear that the stipulation that it only be used for hard science was attached.
7. There are legends that Einstein’s brain was spherical, that it had an remarkable and previously unseen number of folds and ridges and other such claims. These are all false.
8. Einstein’s brain was not stolen, at least not in the most simplistic sense. There’s no evidence that anyone ever accused Harvey of a criminal action or claimed ownership.
9. The brain was never really lost. Some slides may be lost but the large samples that made up most of the brain were always known to be with Thomas Harvey.
10. Einstein never stated that most people only use 10% of their brains and that developing the ability to use the other 90% is how genius is achieved. (or some variation of that) He has been quoted repeatedly to have said this, but he didn’t and it’s not true.
11. Myths and misinformation are still circulated about the final fate of Einstein’s body. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered not far from the cremation, at he Delaware River in New Jersey.
12. Neither Einstein’s brain nor his eyes were ever put up for sale or auction. It’s possible that one or more of the slides were, at some point, but none of the large sections nor the eyes ever were. In the 1990’s there were widespread reports that the eyes were being sold for 5 million dollars or that Michael Jackson was planning on buying them. It’s certainly possible that Jackson was interested, but no serious plan to sell the materials ever existed.
13. Einstein did not have Alzheimers. There were small amounts of plaque found in his brain, but far too low to be consistent with Alzheimers and generally within the levels normally found in the brain of someone in their 70’s. Of course, it’s possible he could have developed the condition if he had lived many more years.
14. The claims that Einstein’s brain was preserved with the intent of resurrecting him or connecting it to a computer are as ridiculous as they sound.
15. A few years ago, it was reported that Einstein’s brain was stolen from the Smithsonian Institution. This was an April Fools Day joke. The brain was not stolen and none of the samples were kept at the Smithsonian.
This entry was posted on Sunday, January 6th, 2013 at 6:24 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Good Science, History, Misc, media. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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