The Saga of Einstein’s Brain

There is no proof that Einstein’s brain was significantly different from any normal brain. When he was born, Einstein’s head was misshapen and oversized. This caused his mother to worry that he may be mentally retarded. Her fears were further heightened because Einstein did not talk until he was three years old. However, as he got older, it was obvious that Einstein was a normal child, and showed that he was extraordinarily gifted at science and math. Although Einstein is not known to believe that his brain was different from anyone else’s, he did believe in genetic origins of dispositions, as he thought that his younger son’s mental problems were genetically linked to his first wife’s melancholy. Einstein felt that the questions surrounding his brain were sufficient enough for him to donate it to science upon his death.

In the summer of 1950, Einstein’s physicians found that an aneurysm in his abdominal aorta was getting larger. When it was found, his physicians wrapped the inflamed blood vessel with cellophane, hoping to prevent a hemorrhage. Einstein refused any attempts at surgery to correct the problem. On March 18, 1950, he signed his will, and organized his funeral affairs. He asked to be cremated and wanted a simple ceremony and no gravestone. He chose not to be buried, because he did not want to have a gravesite that could be turned into a tourist attraction. In February, 1955 Einstein described death to his colleague Gertrud Warschauer as, “an old debt that one eventually pays. Yet instinctively one does everything possible to postpone this final settlement. Such is the game that nature plays with us. We may ourselves smile that we are that way, but we cannot free ourselves of the instinctive reaction to which we are all subject.” On April 18, 1955, in Princeton, New Jersey, Einstein died at the age of seventy-six of a burst aneurysm. His s ashes were scattered, but his family and friends never told anyone where.

Although Einstein requested that his brain be donated to science, its removal was contested after his death. His family and friends informed reporters that they were upset with the hospitals and physicians who argued over who should own his brain. The pathologist who removed Einstein’s brain was Thomas Stoltz Harvey, who disappeared with most of it for over forty years.

On April 18, 1955, Thomas Harvey was the pathologist on duty at Princeton Hospital. When he arrived at work, he discovered Einstein’s body on his metal table. What happened next is in dispute. Hospital officials assert that Einstein’s body was handled with respect. Harvey and other hospital workers said that people came to the morgue all day to look at his body. Einstein’s family members and friends said that they did not know that his brain was removed for study. However, Harvey claimed that he had
a letter of permission from Einstein’s son and that Otto Nathan, Einstein’s friend and executor of his will was in the room during the procedure. What is known to have actually happened was that Harvey used a buzz saw to cut off the top of Einstein’s head and remove his brain. It weighed 2.7 pounds and was perfectly normal. The pathologist
soaked the brain in paraformaldehyde and injected it with sucrose to preserve it. After taking several black and while photos, Harvey cut the brain into about 240 pieces. He, sealed some of the pieces in paraffin to preserve them, and left other pieces in formaldehyde. Several pieces were cut into thin slices and put onto slides for further study.

Physicians at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center claim that Harvey promised the brain to them. Einstein’s son, Hans Albert, threatened a lawsuit, denying that he gave permission for the autopsy. Harvey held a press conference, announcing that he was going to study the brain for science. Brain researchers held a meeting, and invited Harvey in the hopes of persuading him to surrender the brain. He refused, and Einstein’s brain remained in Harvey’s Princeton University possession for 40 years. He often traveled across the United States with parts of Einstein’s brain in the trunk in his car. Ultimately, Harvey left Princeton with the brain and moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where he worked for a plastic extruder company.

When all the media attention and lawsuits faded, the location of Einstein’s brain became an urban legend. American writer, Joyce Carol Oates wrote a poem about the autopsy titled “Love Letter, Static Interference from Einstein’s Brain.” In the 1980s, Thomas Harvey began to send parts of the brain to scientists and researchers around the world. One of the most prominent studies of Einstein’s brain was by Canadian Sandra Witelson. She claimed that Einstein’s brain lacked the parietal operculum that most brains have. However, other regions on each side of the brain were a slightly enlarged, approximately 15 percent larger than normal. Because the inferior parietal lobe is often associated with mathematical ability, it offers an explanation for why Einstein was a genius. But a number of scientists who have reviewed these studies remain unconvinced, asserting that there are no physical differences in Einstein’s brain that would account for his extraordinary ideas. Others who have studied Einstein’s brain are Japanese researcher Haruyasu Yamaguchi, Jorge Columbo in Buenos Aires, Australian Charles Boyd, and Marian Diamond at the University of California at Berkeley. Today, many neurologists dismiss the idea that there would be any evidence in Einstein’s brain that would provide insight into his intelligence.

In 1996, after keeping the brain for forty years, Harvey gave the remaining pieces of Einstein’s brain to the chief pathologist at Princeton Hospital, Dr. Elliot Krauss. It remains at Princeton and is still being studied by researchers and scientists.

References

Bodanis, David. E = mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation. Berkeley: Berkeley Publishing Group, 2001.

Brian, Denis. Einstein: A Life. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1996.

Highfield, Roger, and Paul Carter. The Private Lives of Albert Einstein. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

Kantha, Sachi Sri. An Einstein Dictionary. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Parker, Barry. Einstein: The Passions of a Scientist. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2003.

Paterniti, Michael. Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip across America with Einstein’s Brain. New York: Random House, 2000.

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