The Tragic Story Of How Einstein’s Brain Remained Missing For 23 Years

by Bharat Duggal
The Tragic Story Of How Einstein’s Brain Remained Missing For 23 Years

January 24, 2021

Albert Einstein was one of the most phenomenal scientists the world has ever seen and indeed he had a special brain. But, post his death, his brain had a tragic afterlife.

Albert Einstein, the Nobel prize-winning physicist who changed the world and came up with the law of the photoelectric effect, had to face many challenges and barriers before becoming one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.
Despite the challenges, Albert Einstein was able to reach such heights that no other scientist could have ever imagined. What set him apart from the rest, was obviously not his physical power, but his mental power.

All his theories prove that he indeed has a special brain. So special that after his death, his brain has been a subject of research and speculation till date. Scientists have been trying to figure out whether there were any regularities or irregularities in his brain, which provided him with his mathematical intelligence.

Thomas Harvey, the man who stole Einstein's brain
Thomas Harvey, the man who stole Einstein's brain

Someone stole his brain?!

Yes! You read that right! As mentioned, Einstein’s brain was special. So special that when he died on April 18, 1955, the pathologist on call, Thomas Harvey, stole it!
Without permission from Einstein or his family, Harvey removed and weighed Einstein’s brain at 1230g. He hoped that using his brain; he would be able to somehow find out the secrets behind the genius’ marvels.
After Einstein’s death, Harvey then took the brain to a lab at the University of Pennsylvania where he dissected the brain into several pieces. He conducted studies on the brain and also photographed the brain from many angles.
Harvey then dissected it into about 240 blocks and encased the segments in a plastic-like material called collodion. If you are wondering how cruel it is to take someone’s brain without their permission, there’s more to it. Harvey also removed Einstein’s eyes!
He gave Einstein’s eyes to Henry Abrams, Einstein’s ophthalmologist.

Around the World

Harvey travelled with the brain to various parts of the world and even sent some parts of the brain to other scientists for research.
According to reports, the pathologist claimed that Einstein’s brain should first be studied to reveal the genius’s secrets and then cremated.
Now that Harvey had the time and the resources he required, he published the first research on Einstein’s brain in California in 1985.
While the way in which he acquired Einstein’s brain remains to be questionable and a source of criticism, the results of the research were actually surprising.
Harvey and collaborators’ research asserted that two types of cells, neurons and glia, had an irregular proportion. More research work claim that regions involved in speech and language are smaller within Einstein’s brain, while numerical and spatial processing areas are larger.

Scool Buzz Slides of Einstein's brain on display at London's Wellcome Collection, 2012
Slides of Einstein's brain on display at London's Wellcome Collection, 2012

The Brawl

However, not only the way in which he acquired the brain, but his research work too has been surrounded by controversies. Terence Hines, a professor of psychology at Pace University, branded the research work as bunk and presented a poster at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society annual meeting outlining all of the ways in which each of the six studies was flawed.
Hines insists that, in certain respects, all human brains are special and different from others. Therefore, in Hines’ view, the belief that unusual features in Einstein’s brain are related to his genius goes beyond evidence.
He further argues that it is important to study many brains with certain features to associate unusual brain characteristics with any characteristic, and says that scanning the brains of many very capable scientists will be better research than investigating the brains of only one or two geniuses.

An app showing Harvey's slides of Einstein's brain is available for iPad
An app showing Harvey's slides of Einstein's brain is available for iPad. Photo: National Museum of Health and Medicine

Other preserved brains

Preserving the brains of geniuses was not a recent phenomenon—another brain to be preserved and debated in a similar way was that of the German mathematician, Carl Friedrich Gauss, about a hundred years ago.
Rudolf Wagner examined his brain and found its weight to be 1,492 grammes and the cerebral area to be 219,588 square millimeters.

Highly established convolutions, which were proposed as the reason for his brilliance, were also identified. Those of Vladimir Lenin, the mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya, and the Native American Ishi are other brains that have been removed and examined.

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