Yes, I Found Einstein’s Brain
It is 60 years since our most famous scientist’s death, an event now associated with the weird saga of his brain. Here’s how I got involved.
In April of 1955, Albert Einstein was 76 years old. Three years earlier, he had turned down an offer to be president of Israel. He was living in Princeton, working at the Institute for Advanced Study, trying to perfect a theory of gravitation. His health was failing; he had been told that he suffered from a heart aneurism. His response: “Let it burst.” On April 13, it looked like it might.
His physician told him he needed surgery, but he refused. On Friday, April 15, he entered Princeton Hospital. His family was called in. Over the weekend it seemed that he was recovering. But in the early hours of Monday, April 18, he had trouble breathing. His nurse reported that he muttered two sentences in German, a language that she did not understand.
And then he died.
Einstein and his family did not want a postmortem cult to form around the great man. So the activities of the next hours and day were shrouded in secrecy. Einstein’s personal physician signed the death certificate, noting that the cause of death was cardiac rupture. Even as the death was being formally announced, the pathologist at Princeton Hospital, a Thomas Harvey, performed the autopsy. Sitting in for at least part of it was Otto Nathan, a close friend of the family who would become the executor of the estate.
The reporters who by then had heard of the news and begun gathering in Princeton did not have access to the body. According to his wishes, Einstein’s body was incinerated. The cremation took place at 4:30 that day in Trenton. Nathan disposed of the ashes in the Delaware River.
But not all of the body was cremated. According to an article in the New York Times that ran on April 20, the brain was saved for study. The headline was “KEY CLUE SOUGHT IN EINSTEIN BRAIN.” That article was the last piece of actual news regarding Einstein’s brain that would appear for over 20 years.
The next piece of news would come from me.
“I want you to find Einstein’s brain.”
My editor was giving me the weirdest assignment in my young career. It was the late spring of 1978. I was working for a regional magazine called New Jersey Monthly, based in Princeton, New Jersey. It was my first real job. I was 27 years old and had been a journalist for three years.
The editor, a recent hire named Michael Aron, had come to New Jersey with a white whale of a story idea, one that he once had begun himself but gotten nowhere on. Years earlier, he had put together a package at Harper’s magazine on brain science. He had read Ronald Clark’s magisterial biography of Albert Einstein, and had been fascinated by one phrase at the end.
“He had insisted his brain be used for research…”
What had happened to the brain? Aron wondered. He had seen that April 20 New York Times article. But that seemed to be the last mention of the brain. He looked at all sorts of indexes of publications and journals for any hint of a study and couldn’t find a thing. He wrote to Ronald Clark; the biographer didn’t know. Clark referred Aron to Nathan, the executor of the estate. Nathan’s prompt response was a single terse paragraph. He confirmed that the brain had been removed during the autopsy, and the person performing the procedure had been a pathologist named Thomas Harvey. “As far as I know,” Nathan wrote, “he is no longer with the hospital.” And that was it. Aron had hit a dead end.
But Aron never gave up on the idea, and when he got to New Jersey — where Einstein had lived and died, right there in Princeton — he immediately assigned me the story. He scheduled it for our August cover story. It was late spring. I had about a month.
I began my quest where the story began, at Princeton Hospital. After a number of calls, I finally spoke to its vice president, Walter Seligman. It was not a warm conversation. Yes, he told me, it was true that the autopsy had been conducted there. Were there any records? “You would have to ask the person who performed the autopsy, Dr. Thomas Harvey,” Seligman told me. “He was the only one working there and we have nothing on file. He took all the records with him.” And where would I find him? “I don’t know,” he said. “He left here years ago. I’m sure he’s out of state. ”
Later, I learned that my letter to Otto Nathan and my calls to Walter Seligman were not regarded as blithely as the brush-offs had indicated. Indeed, they were requests that had been long dreaded. The fate of Einstein’s brain was a secret that none of these men wanted revealed, certainly not to a young reporter from an obscure regional magazine. But I didn’t know that then. My job was finding Thomas Harvey.
But it wasn’t that easy. He didn’t have a Facebook page. Google was 20 years away. I couldn’t afford a private detective. I wasn’t working for a big journalistic institution with access to big databases and maybe even private detectives. I was stuck.
Of course I had repeated my editor’s searches in dusty research libraries, trying to see if anyone had written about the brain or maybe published any scientific results. Nothing. But then, a casual acquaintance told me a medical student friend of hers had actually seen a slide of Einstein’s brain. Her instructor had received it as part of a mysterious study. I called the instructor and he told me he had gotten it from his mentor, a Dr. Sidney Schulman. Schulman was an expert in the thalamus, a brain area that relays sensory information, and had received slides of the thalamus for study. I called Schulman, who told me that the slides had come from Harvey, who wanted to know if they showed any variations from the norm.
He couldn’t find any variations, but that didn’t necessarily mean that the slices’ features were within standard ranges. The problem, Schulman told me, was that the methods available when he first looked at the slides were primitive compared to those he used now. Also, the delay between death and the time the cells were preserved wouldn’t allow for more sophisticated examination. In any case, Harvey later retrieved the slides, leaving a few behind for further study. Schulman didn’t know where Harvey could be found. In fact, he asked me if I knew where he was, and whether anything had ever been published.
By now I was trying every possible channel to find Harvey. Since he was a doctor, I wondered whether he might be a member to the American Medical Association, so I called its office in Chicago, and found myself talking to a very kind lady there. I gave her the name and she set out to look through what must have been a huge list of members. Do you have a middle initial? she finally asked me. I provided it: S.
There was a Thomas S. Harvey, born in 1912, she told me, now located in Wichita, Kansas. She didn’t have the phone number but did have an address, which she gave me.
And then I did my final act of sleuthing: I dialed what people used to call “directory assistance” and got the number. But was it the Dr. Harvey? And would he still have the brain? Would he even talk to me? He had, after all, been silent for 23 years.
That night, I asked the man who answered the phone if he was the same Dr. Harvey who had worked at Princeton Hospital in 1955. There was a long pause, almost as if he was considering denying it, until he slowly answered in the affirmative. I told him I was interested in Einstein’s brain and wanted to visit him to discuss it. He told me that there had been an agreement not to discuss it and he would have to decline.
Though I had only been a journalist for a few years, I knew what I had to do in this situation. I had been traveling through a series of hallways where the doors would close behind me, and there would be no re-entry from that side. I could not take no for an answer. I pushed hard, suggesting that Nathan’s mentioning him in the letter was an implicit go ahead for him to talk to me. Finally, he just sighed and agreed to see me, on the condition that I understood that he really couldn’t tell me much.
So I flew to Wichita, Kansas. Our appointment was for that Saturday morning, at the medical lab where Harvey worked. It was pouring rain when I took a taxi from my hotel to the location. It was not a research lab but a facility where patients were sent to get blood tests and other procedures. Harvey let me in himself. He was a gentle man with grey hair. He wore a pastel shirt and a patterned tie. In his pocket was one of those pens that could write in three colors. No one else was there. He led me to his office, a small room in the rear of the lab.
We started with the living Albert Einstein. Harvey had met him several times, accompanying Einstein’s physician to his house to take medical samples. Harvey described Einstein as cordial and kind. Then we moved to the autopsy. As a pathologist, it was Harvey’s job to conduct the procedure. But he was not the person one would turn to for a brain study. Apparently there was some confusion that day, and in what would be the most significant moment in his life, Harvey seized the opportunity, kept the brain and vowed to lead the study himself, “to make a major professional contribution,” he told me.
As the conversation continued, Harvey became increasingly nervous. Yet it was almost as if he couldn’t help himself. After all those years he was still fascinated with the events. And after all those years of silence, there must have been a feeling of unburdening. I could sense the warring impulses, to share or send me home. What I wanted, of course, was the brain. Behind the cordial interaction was a duet as complicated as the chess game in The Seventh Seal.
After the autopsy Harvey had measured and photographed the brain at Princeton Hospital, he told me. The anatomical variations were within the normal range. It weighed 2.64 pounds. Then he placed it in a jar of formaldehyde, and carefully drove to Philadelphia, where there was a rare instrument at University of Pennsylvania called a microtome, used to section brains. The team preserved the brain in small chunks of celloidin, a gelatinous material. Other parts were preserved on slides. A bit of it remained unsectioned.
He told me how he sent samples to experts around the country. But the results were slow to arrive. There were difficulties in studying a brain like this. For one thing, very few brains had been analyzed in depth, let alone a significant number of brains of accomplishment.
All the time, I kept probing its location. Harvey evaded every parry. So we continued talking about the research. Why was it taking so long? Well, there was no urgency to publish, he said. In recent years, he hadn’t worked on it much. Later, much later, I would learn that Nathan was livid that Harvey had been engaged in epic procrastination.
Harvey told me that maybe in a year, he would have something.
There was an uneasy silence. Finally, I couldn’t stand it. Do you have any photographs of it? I asked.
“No I don’t,” he told me. Then he paused, and a strange look came over his face. “I do have a bit of the gross here,” he said. He must have seen my startled look and then repeated, “The gross material.”
The brain had been in this office all along?
Let me describe the office to you. Harvey was sitting behind a desk. On one side the room was a bookshelf piled with books, newspapers and journals. On the other side was a cooler — the kind of Styrofoam container you put beer into when you go fishing — and some cardboard boxes. He got up from his desk and moved to the side of the room with the boxes and container.
Was Einstein’s brain in a beer cooler?
No. He went to the brown cardboard boxes, and hovered over one. On the side it read, in dull red letters, Costa Cider. It had no lid, but on top were crumpled newspapers. He moved the newsprint aside and removed what looked like a mason jar. Inside it were several pieces of matter. There was a conch-shaped mass of wrinkly material, a spongy chunk of grey material, and some pinkish strings that looked like bloated dental floss. All were unmistakably brain organs. Harvey explained they were Einstein’s cerebellum, a chunk of cerebral cortex, and some aortic vessels. Then he went back to the box and pulled out what looked like a big glass cookie jar with a metal lid affixed to the top with masking tape. Floating in the chemical goo were a number of identically sliced translucent cubes, each one numbered. When I was later called on to describe the size of them, the image that came to mind was of Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews. These were a regionally distributed candy of chocolate-covered chunks of gooey peanuts and caramel mix.
I had found Einstein’s brain.
The story was indeed our August cover. The Associated Press picked up on it and filed a story that was carried in virtually every newspaper in the country. For the next day, Einstein’s brain was discussed in every newscast, talk radio show and water cooler conversation in the country. I had sent an early copy to Harvey, who reported that it was fair, but he could have done without the Peanut Chews. Now, reporters were camped out on his lawn. The mysterious Dr. Nathan was contacted, of course. He professed to have known nothing of the brain’s status, but expressed his displeasure at the incident. He later told a writer that he didn’t like the Peanut Chew reference, either.
My main contribution to the tale of Einstein’s brain was finished. But like one pool ball striking another, a new chain of motion involving the brain had been initiated by my action. One consequence of this was that actual science was conducted on Einstein’s brain.
My discovery got a notice in the journal Science and a famed Berkeley neuroscientist named Marian Diamond pinned the article to her corkboard. Diamond was studying the distribution of glial cells in the brain, and she was curious whether Einstein’s brain would be different. After months of requests Harvey finally sent her four samples in a mayonnaise jar. She painstakingly counted the cells — and discovered a higher concentration of glial cells than is normal. Glial cells nourish neurons, among other things. Maybe that made Einstein smarter. The conclusions she could make from this were limited, as Einstein’s brain was a sample of one. But her 1985 paper, in the journal Experimental Neurology, entitled “On the Brain of a Scientist: Albert Einstein” marked the first published study.
Over a decade later, a Canadian researcher named Sandra Witelson made another discovery. She published “The Exceptional Brain of Albert Einstein” in The Lancet in 1999. In it, she claimed that Einstein’s brain was distinguished from others by what it lacked.
Inside our brains — most of our brains, I should say — is a gorge-like depression that begins around our eyes and travels up to the crown of the skull. Discovered by French anatomist Franciscus Sylvius in the 17th century, it is called the Sylvian fissure. From studying the photographs Harvey took and some of the 14 chunks of brain he sent her, Witelson noticed that Einstein had a stunted Sylvian fissure. It just ended prematurely, like a road where the bridge washed out. I’m simplifying a bit here, but almost as if to make up for this, Einstein had a pronounced parietal lobe. Witelson wondered whether this made for easier connections among the neurons in Einstein’s brain, maybe in a way that would allow him more freedom in visualization. Maybe even to visualize relativity. There were other things she discovered that led her to speculate that this may be a brain built for genius. But of course, the lack of genius brains to study, and no control group, left this in the realm of speculation.
I had been tracking all these developments, but in this case I actually interviewed Witelson about her work, returning to the Einstein’s Brain beat that I had carved out for apparently many reporters since my discovery. (One journalist, Carolyn Abraham, even wrote a book, an excellent account of the history of Einstein’s brain.) By then, I had moved to New York City and was working for Newsweek. Oddly, I lived in the same building as the one on the letterhead of Otto Nathan. We were neighbors. I figured out who he was — a tiny man, always impeccably dressed in an old-world style. But I never introduced myself to him.
Also, one day at that address I received a package from an unfamiliar address. It was a giant box of Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews. Long after publication, the article had just come to the company’s attention and they wanted to thank me for the plug.
Over the years, the saga of the brain continued. There were more studies. Some scientists have constructed an Einstein “brain atlas” from Harvey’s photographs and slides, available for download and perusal in an iOS application.
Yes, there’s an app for Einstein’s brain.
And what of Harvey, who had been so reluctant, almost paranoid, when I first intruded upon him? He came to regard the brain as a source of pride, showing it to friends and visitors. (Among those was a neighbor of his when Harvey lived for a period in Lawrence, Kansas — the writer William Burroughs.)
But there was a melancholy element to Harvey’s embrace of modest fame. It led to some unfortunate consequences, such as the episode in which he agreed to accompany a writer on a cross-country road trip, with the brain in the back seat. It made for an amusing narrative, but the account stripped dignity from both Harvey and poor Albert Einstein’s biomass. In 1998, Harvey returned the brain to Princeton Hospital. He died in 2007.
In 2011 a set of slides that Harvey had bestowed upon the Penn pathologist who helped section the brain found their way to the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, famed for its collection of weird biological artifacts, such as the bit of tissue from the neck of John Wilkes Booth, and the cancerous tumor from Grover Cleveland’s mouth. The line between scientific study and tourist attraction has become fuzzy.
This outcome, I admit, makes me uneasy. Look, that brain has been good to me. It gave me one of my earliest highs as a reporter — even Johnny Carson made a joke about it on the Tonight Show! I have been dining on it for years, have spoken about it at conferences and have appeared in documentaries outlining my role. But I can definitely entertain an argument that the famous organ would have been best incinerated with the rest of Dr. Albert. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the esteemed scientist would have been repelled by the entire post-mortem saga.
And yet. . . there is still that rainy day in Wichita, Kansas in 1978. Here’s what I wrote then.
I had suspected that the inevitable lifelessness of the material world would make looking at the brain matter as interesting as viewing a dead jellyfish. My fears were unjustified. For a moment, with the brain before me I had been granted a rare peek into an organic crystal ball. Swirling in formaldehyde was the power of the smashed atom, the mystery of the universe’s black holes, the utter miracle of human achievement… It is something of ourselves at our best.
There it was! Einstein’s brain!
cover photo: Corbis