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Einstein's Stolen Brain Unlocks Some Mysteries Of The Mind + documentary video "Einstein's Brain "

x018In 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.


Fate of Einstein’s Brain

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.

Einstein’s instructions to cremate his body were followed — mostly. His body was cremated as per his wishes; however, Dr. Thomas Stoltz Harvey, the pathologist on call at Princeton Hopsital the morning of Einstein’s death, could not bear the thought of losing the chance to preserve the genius physicist’s brain as well as his eyeballs. He gave the eyeballs to Einstein’s ophthalmologist, Dr. Henry Abrams, and intended to study Einstein’s brain himself.

The Guardian quoted Harvey as saying, "I felt lucky. I had the great fortune of being the one, at the right place at the right time. It was the biggest moment in my life."

The Strange Odyssey of Einstein's Stolen Brain

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.

But he wasn't always diligent about it. When UC Berkeley scientist Marian Diamond requested a sample, it was three years before chunks of the brain showed up, by mail, in a mayonnaise jar. Those chunks would lead to a phenomenal discovery—that glial cell, once believed to be merely glue binding neurons together, actually communicate with each other. As for the rest of the brain, Harvey eventually returned what was left of it to Einstein's granddaughter, carrying it across the country in a Tupperware container.

Scientific Studies of Einstein’s Brain

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, 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.

The first study, “On the brain of a scientist: Albert Einstein,” published in 1985, examined the number of neurons in relation to glial cells, which are cells that provide nourishment to the brain. The study claimed that Einstein’s brain had significantly more glial cells than an average human brain.

The second study, "Alterations in cortical thickness and neuronal density in the frontal cortex of Albert Einstein,” published in 1996, analyzed the weight of Einstein’s brain in comparison to other brains. The study concluded Einstein’s brain had more neurons, the cerebral cortex was thinner, and the brain itself weighed significantly less than other brains.

The third study, "The exceptional brain of Albert Einstein,” published in 1999, discovered atypical grooves in the area responsible for math and spatial reasoning.

Despite this research, many scientists do not believe the studies of Albert Einstein’s brain yielded much insight into the nature of genius IQ. This conclusion is primarily due to their criticisms of the faultily designed studies and manipulated results.

On The Road With Einstein's Brain

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."

They put everything in the trunk and started driving west.

Paterniti describes the trip in his book Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain. The book includes some mind-blowing weirdness, including a stop in Lawrence, Kan., to visit Harvey's former neighbor, the writer and heroin addict William S. Burroughs.

Along the way, Harvey told Paterniti how he had tried to fulfill his duty to science by periodically sending bits of Einstein's brain to various neuroscientists.

"So, he didn't have the entire brain and much of it was sliced up," Paterniti says

Where is Einstein's Brain Today?

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.