Albert Einstein’s Real Brainstorm

Dermot Purgavie. Daily Mail. July 14, 1994.

Forty years after its last profound thought, the greatest mind of the 20th century is being kept in the dark. It now has the IQ of a pickled onion and resides in a closet in Kansas.

Once the light is turned on, we can behold the world’s most celebrated grey matter, the deductive mechanism that unlocked the secrets of the atom and changed our concept of the universe, the source of the genius of perhaps civilisation’s most thoughtful man. Behold Albert Einstein’s brain. Or what’s left of it.

Dr Thomas Harvey has already given some people a piece of Einstein’s mind, and he’d like to find a good home for the rest – about three quarters of it—which is preserved in formaldehyde in two jars in the doctor’s apartment next to a service station in Lawrence, Kansas.

How Einstein’s brain went from the shimmering pinnacle of scientific renown at the Nobel ceremonies in Stockholm to the deep obscurity of a cupboard in Kansas is itself a diverting tale, but even more remarkable is the fact that now Dr Harvey can’t even give it away.

This is the Koh-i-noor of cerebral matter, the yolk of the world’s most revered egg-head, the brain credited with the greatest achievement in the history of human thought, but nobody wants it.

This is the brain of the greatest scientist who ever lived, the Pope of Physics, the messenger of the new order. Even so, the Smithsonian Institution, known as America’s attic, doesn’t want it. Neither does the Wistar Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, known for its collection of notable brains. Even New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine has turned it down. Einstein said that ‘my brain is my laboratory’, but the sad fact is that there is no longer anything very distinctive about the awesome noodle that produced the theory of relativity. Neurologists are interested in the chemistry, not the structure, of the brain, and four decades of disinfecting formaldehyde have sanitised the mastermind that once worked so wondrously in Einstein’s head.

“It’s a normal, male, human brain,” says Harry Zimmerman, Professor Emeritus at the Einstein College of Medicine. “After that, there’s nothing more you can say. What Harvey’s got is no longer of any value.”

But Harvey, custodian of Einstein’s brain since the great man died of aortal aneurism in 1955 at the age of 76, believes it is negligent, if not sacrilegious, to dismiss it as worthless. Science advances all the time, he says, and nobody knows what secrets the brain might still yield.

Einstein, most famous of the resident geniuses at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, had asked his close friend Harry Zimmerman to study his brain after his death, and Thomas Harvey, then a pathologist in Princeton, removed it when he performed the autopsy.

Dr Zimmerman kept 1,230 grams for research and Dr Harvey took the rest, had them divided into 200 meticulously labelled pieces, and has subsequently held them in protective custody, taking them with him wherever he went.

Einstein’s astonished family only found out later—when they read about it in a newspaper – that the brain had survived, and they prohibited any commercial exploitation of it, restricting access to only serious scientific inquiry.

Now retired, Harvey has about 150 chunks left and, at 81, he wants to ensure that they end up in properly-respectful hands.

Undeterred by the relative theory—some revisionists have argued that Einstein’s first wife may have given him his best ideas—curious scientists have sought bits of the brain for research down the years to try to analyse his intellectual distinction. But nothing very conclusive has ever come of all their mind-reading.

At a 1985 conference debating ‘The Neurobiology of Intellectual Giftedness’, a team from the University of California reported that study of four sections of the brain found evidence suggesting Einstein may have had greater abilities for information processing than your average quantum physicist, but, they said, scientifically, it was no more than speculation. Collecting famous brains seems to have been a Victorian enthusiasm, but as protector of what he regards as one of the great legacies of science, Dr Harvey has been affronted by the indifference of America’s institutions to the last remains of Einstein.

He may, however, be grateful that it was rejected by the Wistar Institute, whose distinguished-brain collection has dwindled from more than 200 to just 18, assisted by the sort of sloppy brain handling that turned poet Walt Whitman’s long-preserved mind to fish bait when his jar was dropped and shattered.

Ironically, most interest in enshrining the brain that encouraged the development of the atom bomb has come from the bomb’s victims, the Japanese. After many months on the trail, this spring, Kenji Sugimoto, a professor of mathematics and the history of science at Kinki University, in Higashi-Osaka, finally arrived on Dr Harvey’s doorstep offering Einstein’s brain a dignified resting place.

He hoped to take it back to Japan to become the centrepiece of a new museum devoted to Einstein’s memory. Touched, Dr Harvey gave Mr Sugimoto a chunk. Now, it seems that there could at last be a permanent home for Einstein’s remains at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. They have hair and bone fragments from Abraham Lincoln and would, they say, be happy to accommodate the brain.

Naturally, Dr Harvey is being cautious. “I haven’t made a final decision yet,” he says.