Einstein’s Ordinary Brain Was Stolen Against His Wishes

By Heather Ramsey on Wednesday, May 27, 2015
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“On quantum theory I use up more brain grease than on relativity.” —Albert Einstein

In A Nutshell

Even though he was a physicist, Albert Einstein was a celebrity during his lifetime. He was so concerned about the public obsession with his genius that he directed that his body be cremated after his death, with the ashes scattered secretly to avoid idol worship. Unfortunately, when Einstein died, a pathologist carried out an unauthorized autopsy, taking Einstein’s brain and having it sliced into more than 200 pieces. For over 40 years, the pathologist kept the brain, sometimes giving pieces of it to researchers for study. However, no one ever found a physical reason for Einstein’s genius. When all was said and done, his brain was quite ordinary.

The Whole Bushel

A German-born physicist, Albert Einstein was considered by many to be the smartest man of the 20th century. His so-called “miracle year” was 1905, when he published several groundbreaking papers, including one on special relativity, from which the equation, E = mc2, is derived. In 1915, he gave us his theory of gravity, or general relativity. Most of us have no clue what Einstein was talking about, but he forever changed physics and our understanding of space and time in the universe.

Maybe that’s why so many people wondered if Einstein’s brain was physically different than that of a mere mortal. It was a perplexing question because there seemed to be inconsistencies between his slow start in life and his later brilliance. When he was young, it took Einstein longer than normal to learn to speak. His parents were so worried that they took him to a doctor. This led some scientists to believe that Einstein didn’t have a superior brain, at least not at first. They believe he had a damaged brain that eventually healed.

Then again, slow speech may have helped Einstein to develop his habit of thinking in pictures instead of words. He used these thought-pictures to develop some radically different concepts in physics. For example, imagine a bowling ball rolling over a trampoline, causing it to bend in the middle. If you then picture billiard balls rolling on the trampoline surface, they’ll head toward the bowling ball because the ball has warped, or caused a curved depression in, the trampoline surface. Einstein could see the same relationship between space and the objects in it, which became the theory of general relativity.

Of course, some of the difficulties he had as a youth have been exaggerated. For example, it’s a myth that Einstein failed math when he was young. “I never failed in mathematics,” he once said. “Before I was fifteen I had mastered differential and integral calculus.”

Even though he was a scientist, Einstein was a celebrity during his lifetime. He was so concerned about the public obsession with his genius that he directed that his body be cremated after his death, with the ashes scattered secretly to avoid idol worship. He certainly didn’t want people to study his brain.

Unfortunately, his wishes weren’t carried out. In 1955, Einstein died in Princeton Hospital at age 76 from a burst aortic aneurysm. Without permission, the pathologist on call, Thomas Harvey, did an autopsy and took Einstein’s brain and eyeballs. Harvey kept the brain but gave the eyeballs to Einstein’s eye doctor, who stored them in a New York safety deposit box for at least 50 years.

When his actions were discovered, Harvey persuaded Hans Albert, Einstein’s son, to retroactively give him permission to study the brain for scientific purposes only. Harvey didn’t have the scientific expertise to study a brain, so the director of Princeton Hospital wasn’t so easy to fool. He insisted that Harvey return the brain. When he didn’t, his employment ended.

Next, Harvey carried Einstein’s brain to a hospital in Philadelphia. There, a technician sliced it into more than 200 pieces. Harvey turned over some of these pieces to his mentor and Einstein’s personal doctor, Harry Zimmerman. Then Harvey put the rest of the pieces in a couple of jars that he stashed in his basement. For reporters, he pretended that he was studying the brain, but nothing ever came of it.

When he left his house due to a failing marriage, his wife threatened to throw away Einstein’s brain. Harvey went back to get it, then moved with the brain to various locations in the Midwest. At times, he sliced off parts of the brain to give to various researchers.

In 1997, it seems that Harvey was ready to relinquish Einstein’s brain but not without getting his story into print. With a freelance magazine writer as his driver, Harvey went on a cross-country trek from Princeton to California with the brain in the trunk of his car. His intention was to meet Einstein’s granddaughter. But she didn’t want the brain, either.

So Harvey returned to Princeton and gave the remainder of Einstein’s brain to the pathologist at Princeton Hospital. The writer later published a book, Driving Mr. Albert, about their adventure. Most researchers wouldn’t go near Einstein’s brain. But there were at least six studies published about it. Despite some claims of finding a physical reason for Einstein’s genius, many scientists believe the studies were conducted incorrectly, producing invalid results. No matter how you do the math, there’s really no way at this time to correlate statistically someone’s intelligence to anatomy. Even if there were a way to do that, there’s a greater moral issue of why Einstein’s wishes were not respected.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image via Wikipedia
TIME: 20 Things You Need to Know About Einstein
NPR: The Long, Strange Journey of Einstein’s Brain
National Geographic: The Tragic Story of How Einstein’s Brain Was Stolen and Wasn’t Even Special
NPR: How Smart Was Einstein?