The Theft and Half-Century Journey of Einstein’s Brain

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tags: Einstein



Matt Blitz writes for the wildly popular interesting fact website TodayIFoundOut.com. To subscribe to Today I Found Out's "Daily Knowledge" newsletter, click here or like them on Facebook here. You can also check 'em out on YouTube here.

On April 17, 1955, the greatest scientist of his generation checked himself into Princeton Hospital due to chest pains. By early the next morning, Albert Einstein had died from an abdominal aortic aneurysm – the rupture of the aorta, the heart vessel that's the body's main supplier of blood. While word was still getting out that the great Dr. Einstein had passed away at the age of 76, something rather disturbing was happening at the hospital, if not downright nefarious. Einstein's brain, the keeper of one of the world's greatest intellects, had been stolen. And that is just the beginning of the story.

Dr. Thomas Stolz Harvey was the pathologist on call during the early morning hours of the 18th and was the doctor assigned to attend to Dr. Einstein. Seven hours after the great scientist's death at 1 am, Harvey began the autopsy he claimed he was given permission to do. After determining the cause of death, Harvey went about removing, measuring, and weighing Einstein's brain. Harvey later would say that he "knew we had permission to do an autopsy, and I assumed that we were going to study the brain." To this day, no paperwork nor permission prior to the autopsy has ever been found.

After all the calculations had been done, Dr. Harvey interjected and immersed the brain in formaldehyde. After he was done with that, he took Einstein's eyeballs out, which were later given to Einstein's eye doctor Henry Adams (rumors still exist that the eyeballs are in a safe deposit box somewhere in New York City). Finally, he gave the rest of the body back to be cremated.

The removal of the brain and eyeballs were against Einstein's final wishes. According to to Brian Burrell's book Postcards from the Brain Museum, Einstein had left very specific instructions. He wanted to be cremated with the brain still inside of his head and his ashes scattered in secret, in order to "discourage idolaters."

So not only was this against Einstein's personal wishes, Harvey had no legal nor medical right for keeping the brain. He wasn't even a neurosurgeon nor a brain specialist. His responsibility simply was to determine the cause of death – which was heart failure and had very little to do with brain (at least, directly). Burrell speculates that there were two possible reasons for Harvey to remove and keep for himself one of history's most famous brains – one is that it was at the request of Harry Zimmerman, Einstein's personal physician and a mentor of Harvey. Zimmerman never publicly said this to be true, though did he make the request for the brain after the deed was done. The other theory that Burrell gives is that Harvey, perhaps inspired by the study done on Lenin's brain in 1926, simply got "caught up in the moment and was transfixed in the presence of greatness." ...




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