In the 55 years since Albert Einstein's death, many scientists have tried to figure out what made him so smart. But no one tried harder than a pathologist named Thomas Harvey, who lost his job and his reputation in a quest to unlock the secrets of Einstein's genius. Harvey never found the answer. But through an unlikely sequence of events, his search helped transform our understanding of how the brain works.
Why was Einstein’s IQ so high? What made the genius scientist so smart? These questions along with perhaps a desire for notoriety motivated pathologist Thomas Harvey to remove Einstein’s brain without permission during the autopsy shortly after the physicist’s death. In a bizarre true-life story filled with drama, intrigue, and controversy, Harvey took Einstein’s brain without authorization for what he later justified as the benefit of science. Yet scientists remain skeptical that the subsequent dissection and research of the genius brain has uncovered any secrets of how brain composition results in superior intelligence.
On April 18, 1955, Albert Einstein died at the age of 76 from an abdominal aortic aneurysm at New Jersey’s Princeton Hospital. Einstein had left explicit instructions that his body should be cremated.
During his lifetime, Einstein had become a celebrity as a result of his groundbreaking scientific theories and high IQ. Einstein did not want his body venerated, scrutinized, or worse after his death. The Guardian article, “My dad has Einstein’s brain,” includes a revealing quote from Einstein: “I want to be cremated, so people don’t come to worship at my bones.”
Story of Kenji Sugimoto, professor in Math and Science history at Kinki university in Japan on a pilgrimage to find Einstein's brain.
Kenji Sugimoto is a professor in mathematics and science history at the Kinki university in Japan.
He has spent thirty years documenting einstein's life and person. To complete his life's work, the professor travelled to America in search of the key to the mind of the great thinker.
When Thomas Harvey performed Albert Einstein's autopsy, he removed his brain, which was standard procedure. But what he did next wasn't standard at all: He put the brain in a jar of formaldehyde and made off with it. NPR relates the strange tale in a segment this morning. Harvey said he was driven by a sense of scientific duty, and through the years would freely distribute bits of the brain to leading neuroanatomists.
After he removed the brain from Einstein’s skull, Harvey photographed it and then a hospital technician sliced it into 240 pieces. According to the Postcards from the Brain Museum book excerpt on NPR.org, Harvey gave some of the pieces to Harry Zimmerman, Einstein’s personal physician, and kept the remaining pieces himself.
Over the next 43 years, Harvey was the caretaker of Einstein’s brain. He stashed the brain away in his various places of residence. When Harvey moved from Princeton, New Jersey; to Wichita, Kansas; to Weston, Missouri; to Lawrence, Kansas; and finally to Princeton again, the brain traveled with him.
Over the years, Harvey also sent sections of Einstein’s brain to various researchers. Three scientific studies on Einstein’s brain were published.
Paterniti caught up with Harvey 40 years later, when the writer became intrigued by the story of Einstein's brain. Over the phone, the men hatched a plan to return the brain to Einstein's granddaughter Evelyn, who was living in Berkeley, Calif.
By that time, Harvey was in his 80s and living alone just a few miles from Princeton.
Paterniti drove down from his home in Maine in a rented Buick Skylark. When he arrived, Harvey was ready to go.
"He brought out his bags," Paterniti says, "and in one bag he had a Tupperware container in which he had stashed the brain."
In the final chapter of the Einstein brain saga, Harvey made a grand cross-country trip from Princeton to California, brain in tow in the back of his Buick Skylark, to bequeath the organ to Einstein’s granddaughter, who it turned out did not want it. So Harvey drove back to Princeton, donating the brain instead to Princeton Hospital. The brain had come full circle, once again ending up where it had begun its fateful journey.