Peer into Einstein’s brain

Lucy Rorke-Adams holds a slide of Einstein's brainThe College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum has put specimens of Albert Einstein’s brain in slides on display. Most of the slides are in a box, but one of them has been set up so visitors can view a slice of the brilliant man’s brain under a microscope. There are 46 slides in the collection donated by Dr. Lucy Rorke-Adams, a senior neuropathologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She is 82 years old and although she’s still working, she thought it best to donate them to the Mütter Museum for posterity before she dies.

The slides have lived a checkered existence. Albert Einstein died at the University Medical Center at Princeton on April 17th, 1955 of a burst abdominal aortic aneurysm when he was 76 years old. The University Medical Center pathologist on duty that evening, Thomas Harvey, performed an autopsy but added his own special twist to the standard operating procedure: he took the great man’s brain out and refused to put it back. (He also took out Einstein’s eyeballs and gave them to Henry Abrams, Einstein’s optometrist.)

When Harvey was found out some days later, he persuaded Einstein’s son, Hans Albert, to give him permission to study the brain on the condition that any and all work be for the good of medical science and that it be published in reputable scientific journals. The University Medical Center, however, was not satisfied. Harvey’s supervisors insisted he return the organ and Harvey’s persistent refusal to return the brain resulted in his being fired a few months later.

Collection of slides of Einstein's brainOut of a job and out of a lab, Harvey took the brain to another Philadelphia hospital where pathologist William Ehrich allowed him to use his lab to section the brain, dividing it into some 240 pieces, 200 of them thin slices embedded into slides. Harvey gave Ehrich 46 of those slides. Ehrich’s widow gave them to another Philadelphia doctor, Allen Steinberg, who would later pass them along to Lucy Rorke-Adams who has now donated them to the Mütter.

Thomas Harvey spent the intervening decades trying to get scientists to study Einstein’s brain. Although he kept claiming he was doing ground-breaking work that was going to be published any day now, Harvey was no brain surgeon. There was no way he could comply with Hans Albert Einstein’s requirement of legitimate study published in legitimate journals, so he sent out slides and sections to a number of institutions and experts hoping they’d be inspired to do the work for him.

Scan of one of the slides of Einstein's brainBy 1988, Harvey had lost his medical license for failing a competency exam and was working in a plastics factory in Kansas. He lived in obscurity, spending the evenings drinking and shooting the breeze with his neighbor, William S. Burroughs (yes, that William S. Burroughs). Einstein’s personal physician, Dr. Hans Zimmerman, who had helped Harvey out after his firing and received some brain slides in return, told people Harvey was dead when they asked.

One of the people who asked was Japanese professor and Einstein expert Kenji Sugimoto, who was shocked to find Harvey alive and well when he tracked him down in Lawrence. There’s an impossible-to-get documentary that follows Sugimoto’s search for Einstein’s brains (recap here) and the meeting with Harvey is, well, crazy. Harvey has most of Einstein’s brain stored in three jars in his closet.

Humbly, the professor asks if he maybe could bring a piece back with him to Japan. ‘Sure, why not,’ Harvey replies and walks out to the kitchen to fetch his bread board and a knife. Harvey finds an old pill cup to store the slice in and pours a little formaldehyde in.

Harvey moved back to Princeton in the early 1990s and then did one final weird thing: in 1997 he put the brain in Tupperware bowl, the bowl in a duffel bag, the duffel bag in the trunk of his Buick Skylark and drove to California with journalist Michael Paterniti to meet Eistein’s granddaughter, Evelyn. Harvey offered her the brain but she declined.

They returned to Princeton where Harvey finally gave the remaining bulk of the brain to Dr. Elliot Krauss, the University Medical Center chief pathologist. It remains there to this day. (Paterniti wrote a book about that crazy-ass trip, Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain.)

Thanks to Harvey’s decades-long monomania, Einstein’s brain cannot be fully accounted for. There are bits and bobs scattered around, but none of them are on public display. The slides in the Mütter Museum are unique in that way.

There’s a gallery of pictures of Einstein’s brain slides and other medical oddities at the Mütter Museum here. Watch the formidable Lucy Rorke-Adams announce the donation on a local Philadelphia news program and talk about how youthful his brain cells look and how gorgeous his blood vessels are.