A Moment of Science

The Tale Of Dr. Harvey’s Illicit Souvenir

Some people can vegetables or preserves. Dr. Harvey preferred the most famous brain in theoretical physics.

Brain MRI

Photo: Christian R. Linder (Wikimedia Commons)

Dr. Harvey took more than pictures of Einstein's brain.

Think back to the most repugnant thing you’ve ever found in your kitchen.

Maybe long-lost take-out boxes, fetid milk jugs or clots of goop from your sink’s trap spring to mind.

Bad as these are, they all pale in comparison to what Dr. Thomas Harvey, a pathologist, kept in mason jars for more than forty years: the mutilated brain of Albert Einstein.

Mostly All the Way Cremated

On April 18, 1955, the eminent physicist passed away in a Princeton, New Jersey hospital. According to Einstein’s explicit final wishes, his remains were to be cremated immediately, the ashes promptly scattered.

And this is what happened — almost.

Before releasing the body, Dr. Harvey, the man responsible for performing the official autopsy, took the liberty of removing the eyes and brain.  The former he bestowed upon one Dr. Henry Abrams, who was Einstein’s eye doctor. The latter he kept for himself — part research specimen and, perhaps, part souvenir.

In the Name of Science

Hoping to uncover some clear neurological underpinning to the deceased scientist’s great theoretical prowess, Dr. Harvey had the brain diced up into tiny blocks for more minute scrutiny. To stave off putrefaction, these were then placed in formalin-filled mason jars.

The only problem was that Dr. Harvey was not a brain specialist, nor could he entice very many people who actually were to take a closer look at his pilfered samples. In fact, for as long as Dr. Harvey was in control over Einstein’s brain, no research was ever published.

So the chunks of tissue sat, for decades, submerged in preservatives and sloshing occasionally with the pathologist’s numerous relocations to different parts of the country.

Once, Dr. Harvey drove cross-country to California to gift the brain to Evelyn Einstein, Albert’s granddaughter. She wasn’t interested.

Where is It now?

In 1998, Dr. Harvey relinquished the contents of his jars to University Medical Center at Princeton, and the first paper published on Einstein’s brain structure came out the following year. Links between Einstein’s intelligence and neuronal anomalies, like larger-than-average parietal lobes, were tenuous and remain controversial.

And the eyes? To this day, they’re languishing in a New York City safety deposit box.

Read More:

  • I Found Einstein’s Brain (StevenLevy.com)
  • Closer Look at Einstein’s Brain (ScienceNOW)
  • Einstein’s Eyes: Worth $5 Million? (MSN)
Ben Alford

Ben Alford works in Indiana Public Media's online dimension and holds an M.A. from Indiana University Bloomington's History and Philosophy of Science department. When not vegetating in front of a computer screen or geeking out over a good book, he can be found outside exploring.

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