Believing Einstein’s Brain Matter Matters, Doctor Keeps the Remains

Scott McCartney. Asian Wall Street Journal. 6 May 1994.

Thirty-nine years ago, Dr. Harvey, a general practitioner and pathologist, performed the autopsy on Albert Einstein, and afterward he kept the Nobel laureate’s brain. Today, it floats, in pieces, in a couple of pickling jars full of formaldehyde, here in Dr. Harvey’s second-floor apartment nextdoor to a gas station.

Dr. Harvey has studied the celebrated cerebrum for nearly four decades, seeking the seeds of genius. He hasn’t found any. Now, he wonders what will happen to the gray matter when he himself dies. At 81, he is in good health but says: “I might get hit by a car, or an earthquake, or a tornado.” And he has made no provisions for Einstein’s brain.

You might think that finding a home for the brain that helped unlock the secrets of the atom ought to be relatively easy. But some logical repositories don’t seem to be interested.

The Wistar Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, a biomedical-research center in Philadelphia, has a collection of brains that once exceeded 200. Several belonged to such famous people as the poet Walt Whitman, who died in 1892. Over the years, however, some were lent out, some were tossed out, and some met even less dignified fates. Whitman’s brain, for instance, “was dropped on the floor by a lab technician and discarded long ago,” says spokeswoman Diana Burgwyn.

The remaining 18 brains at Wistar are the subject of no current research. They “are just sitting in jars of formaldehyde and cotton in the basement, floating around,” says archivist Nina Long. “It seems to have been quite fashionable at the turn of the century to donate your brain.”

Wistar is no longer accepting brains. Not even Einstein’s.

The Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, once housed a collection of body parts. To Einstein’s brain, however, it says no thanks. “That’s not the kind of stuff we collect,” says spokeswoman Mary Combs.

Surely, then, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York would prize its namesake’s brain? Not necessarily, says Prof. Emeritus Harry Zimmerman, a close friend of Einstein’s. No offense to the late genius, but there is nothing remarkable about the brain that produced the theory of relativity, says Dr. Zimmerman, who is 93.

“It’s a normal, male, human brain. After that, there’s nothing more you can say,” says Dr. Zimmerman, and he should know: At Einstein’s request, Dr. Zimmerman studied the 1,230 gram brain after Dr. Harvey removed it in 1955, and still has a box of 1,000 slides of Einstein brain tissue. Although the college could probably find storage space more suitable than Dr. Harvey’s closet, there wouldn’t be any research interest, says Dr. Zimmerman. “What Harvey’s got is no longer of any value.”

That’s one reason Dr. Harvey is in a pickle. What neurologists are interested in these days is the complex chemical structure of the brain, not the tissue itself. When the brain dies, it undergoes irreparable change, says Frederick Samson, a neurobiologist at the University of Kansas Medical School. And formaldehyde, a disinfectant and preservative, purges all the interesting chemicals. You can’t measure IQ with a microscope.

“The answers to genius are not in the gross structures,” says Dr. Samson. “That’s why there would not be any great interest (in Einstein’s brain) by serious neurologists.”

Dr. Harvey, for his part, thinks that to scientifically write off Einstein’s brain is narrow-minded. Technology now makes elaborate genetic-testing possible, and as other advances are made, something worthwhile could eventually be gleaned, he thinks.

Dr. Harvey once sent samples of Einstein’s brain to a molecular biologist at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, who was investigating the possibility that a specific gene mutation predisposed people to aneurysms. Einstein died of an aortal aneurysm, at the age of 76. But in testing the brain DNA, the Rutgers researcher, Charles Boyd, found it too degraded to tell whether the suspected gene had mutated.

Dr. Harvey has also sent samples to seven other research groups in this country and Japan. Just one paper has been published as a result, a 1985 article by University of California at Berkeley researchers in a journal called Experimental Neurology. The scientists reported Einstein had a larger percentage of glial cells in some areas of his brain. Glial cells, which nourish neurons, were found to be more prevalent in areas of the left hemisphere thought to control higher mathematical and language abilities — perhaps indicating heightened activity there.

But even that less-than-spectacular finding has been questioned. Certain brain researchers contend that higher concentrations of glial cells are found in areas of the brain under repair. And Dr. Zimmerman notes that the slides of Einstein’s brain contain thicker samples of brain tissue than researchers typically use is such analyses, and that may well have distorted comparisons with the norm.

How Dr. Harvey came into Einstein’s brain in the first place is itself a touchy subject. Dr. Zimmerman says he asked Dr. Harvey to remove the brain because Einstein had expressly asked Dr. Zimmerman to examine it upon his death. Einstein’s family, however, didn’t know about that. After the autopsy, the body was cremated, and only after reading a newspaper story two days later did the startled family learn about the brain, Dr. Harvey says.

In short order, the two physicians found themselves meeting with the attorney for the Einstein estate. As a result, Drs. Harvey and Zimmerman reached an agreement with the family prohibiting commercial use of the brain and restricting research articles about it to scientific literature. Afterward, Dr. Zimmerman examined the brain, and Dr. Harvey took it to a neurological lab and had it cut into 200 pieces, mostly cubes that were numbered and charted. What’s left in Dr. Harvey’s apartment is about 75% of the original brain, in chunks.

One possible final resting place for Einstein’s brain may be the National Museum of Health and Medicine, which houses most of the collection of body parts once residing at the Smithsonian. “They do have a good amount of pickled people parts,” says Ms. Combs of the Smithsonian.

Indeed, the museum boasts of more than 100,000 brain sections, as well as other pieces of historical figures. It owns, for instance, some locks of hair and bone fragments belonging to Abraham Lincoln. And though officials there aren’t currently seeking donations, they say they wouldn’t spurn Einstein’s brain. “It would be important and valuable and have great potential for public education,” says Adrian Noe, curator of the museum’s brain collection.