“…his brain has been mismanaged with great skill.”
– Bob Dylan, “License to Kill”
Albert Einstein (1879–1955) is considered to be one of the most influential scientists of all time. His childhood, though, was not very promising. He did not speak until he was three years old. There is also reason to believe he had dyslexia. After six years working as a Swiss patent application examiner in Bern, he published several revolutionary papers in theoretical physics. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921. While he was on a tour of the US in 1933, the Nazi party came to power in his native Germany. As a Jewish intellectual and pacifist, Einstein knew that he no longer had a place in German society and stayed in the US, becoming an American citizen in 1940. In 1948, he was found to have an abdominal aortic aneurysm.1 Repair of this condition was not yet part of medical practice. His surgeon, Dr. Rudolf Nissen (1896–1981), a fellow German Jewish refugee, used an accepted technique at the time of reinforcing the aorta by wrapping it in cellophane.2
In 1955, the aneurysm started to leak, but Einstein refused surgery to repair it. He told his surgeon, “It is time to go. I will do it elegantly.”3 He died the day after his admission to Princeton Hospital. Einstein had made it clear that he wished his body to be cremated and his ashes scattered in an undisclosed place. He did not want his burial place to become a tourist attraction or a destination of pilgrimages.
His autopsy was performed within eight hours of his death by general pathologist Thomas Harvey, MD (1912–2007), chief of pathology at Princeton Hospital.4 After completing the autopsy, Harvey removed the brain and kept it. A teacher at an elementary school in Princeton told her class that Einstein had died the day before and had been cremated. A boy in the class (Harvey’s son) then said, “My father has his brain.”5 Harvey refused to return the brain, although he had no legal right to it. He convinced the furious Hans Albert, Einstein’s son, that the brain would be studied to benefit science.
He photographed the intact brain from many different angles and cut it into more than 200 1-cm3 cubes. He embedded these in the resin cellodion, which allows the tissue to be sliced thinly for microscopic examination. He kept these blocks of brain tissue in jars of formaldehyde in his basement and sent some to a dozen “leading pathologists” in the US over several years.6,7 Harvey, who was not a neuropathologist, was fired from Princeton Hospital in 1960 for not having produced a scientific paper based on an examination of the brain that he stole.8
In 1978, a reporter given the assignment of finding out what had happened to Einstein’s brain since the 1955 autopsy, tracked it to Thomas Harvey, who was then living in Wichita, Kansas9 and working as the medical supervisor of a commercial clinical laboratory. Einstein’s brain was being kept in jars in a cardboard box and its “rediscovery” became national news. Neuroscientist Marian Diamond at the University of California at Berkley requested some brain tissue from Harvey. He sent her some blocks of tissue in a mayonnaise jar. She discovered that the Einstein brain tissue had an elevated ratio of glial cells to neurons, as compared with control brain tissue.10,11 Glial cells provide structure and support to neurons. She wondered if this increased glial-to-neuron ratio had something to do with Einstein’s genius. Her study, however, was criticized for being highly flawed.12
Dr. Harvey, practicing medicine in Weston, Missouri, lost his medical license after failing a three-day medical competency examination in 1988.13 In 1997, he undertook a cross-country trip with freelance author Michael Paterniti as his driver to meet Einstein’s granddaughter, Evelyn Einstein, in San Francisco and to offer her what he had left of her grandfather’s brain. She was pleased to see him and to relate her few memories of Einstein, but did not want the brain tissue.14
Might examining a brain’s structure reveal the source of genius? Harvard University neuroscientist Albert Galaburda wrote in 1999, “The search for gross anatomical markers for greatness will go on, I am sure, but I suspect that it will continue to be as unproductive as it had been in the past.”15 Dean Falk, an evolutionary anthropologist, on the other hand, asked if Harvey’s slides “may have a whole lot more to say.”16
In 2010, Dr. Harvey’s heirs gave what remained of Einstein’s brain to the National Museum of Health and Medicine, outside of Washington, D.C.17
In reference to the song by Melanie Safka, “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma.”
- “Albert Einstein.” Wikipedia.
- “Rudolph Nissen.” Wikipedia.
- “Albert Einstein,” Wikipedia.
- “Thomas Stoltz Harvey.” Wikipedia.
- Mohanty Hejmadi. “Einstein’s brain.” Current Science, 109(4), 2015.
- Michael Paterniti. “Driving Mr. Albert: A trip across America with Einstein’s brain.” Harper’s Magazine, October, 1997. https://www.vanderbilt.edu/olli/class-materials/Driving_Mr_Albert.pdf.
- “Brain of Albert Einstein.” Wikipedia.
- “The long, strange journey of Einstein’s brain.” National Public Radio, April 18, 2005. Excerpt from Brian Burrell, Postcards From the Brain Museum, Broadway, 2005. https://www.npr.org/2005/04/18/4602913/the-long-strange-journey-of-einsteins-brain.
- Steven Levy. “Yes, I found Einstein’s brain.” Wired, April 17, 2015. https://www.wired.com/2015/04/yes-i-found-einsteins-brain/.
- Marian Diamond et al. “On the brain of a scientist: Albert Einstein.” Experimental Neurology, 88(1), 1985.
- Relics: Einstein’s Brain. Directed by Kevin Hull. BBC, 1994. An interesting documentary about Japanese professor Kenji Sugimoto’s search to see and touch the brain. Dr. Harvey appears in the film.
- “The long, strange journey,” NPR.
- “The long, strange journey,” NPR.
- Paterniti, “Driving Mr. Albert.”
- Albert Galaburda. “Albert Einstein’s brain,” Lancet, 354, 1999.
- Dean Falk. “Einstein’s brain: Lost and found,” Brain, 141(7), 2018.
- “Brain of Albert Einstein,” Wikipedia.
HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.