In search of Einstein’s brain

When Albert Einstein died of an aortic aneurysm on April 18, 1955, Princeton Hospital pathologist Thomas Harvey removed the great man’s brain. Harvey, acting without the family’s permission, seemed to think that the brainiac’s gray matter would reveal the genius’s anatomy, if only anyone could figure it out.

Mathematician Brian D. Burrell, desperate that his calculus students would complain they weren’t “Einstein,” writes of the tradition of examining the brains of intellectuals for intelligence. He explores the astonishing journeys and travails of Einstein’s brain, “a destiny that is at once strange, sad and fraught with ethical complications.”

Einstein wished to be cremated, but Harvey kept the brain and refused to deliver it to the hospital. Tissue samples are not considered the property of the treating pathologist. Harvey, however, eventually obtained permission from Einstein’s son to use the material for scientific purposes. Part of the brain was preserved in a jar and the rest dissected in the pathology laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania:

Under Harvey’s strict instructions, using the best practices of the time for neurological tissue preparation [technician Marta] Keller spent the next eight months dissecting portions of the cortex, embedding 240 numbered pieces of clear plastic material called celloidin, and mounting 12 sets of microscope slides with slices of colored tissue.

Harvey sent some of this material to other scientists, but they found nothing of note. He was fired from Princeton Hospital in 1960 and took what of his brain with him as he walked away from medicine. Characterized by Burrell as “quirky but scrupulous,” Harvey would sometimes stockpile his cans of the smart stuff in a beer cooler.

No one seemed particularly interested until the mid-1980s birth of Einstein’s brain studies, but since then there have been periodic reports purporting to explain Einstein through what’s left of his brain. “Unusual features in parietal lobes of physique” teases the report of a 2009 paper, adding to the rare bumps and grooves highlighted by others. Burrell, almost alone, is skeptical of what he calls “flawed brain studies that have collectively spawned what one critic has ruefully termed a ‘neuromythology’ of genius.”

“Half a dozen reports of his brain have surfaced, each highlighting a different anatomical feature as a possible source of his brilliance, all to great media hype,” Burrell writes. “No one has revealed a credible anatomical basis for human aptitude.”

Harvey eventually returned the brain parts to Princeton Hospital’s successor institution, Princeton University Medical Center. Meanwhile, the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, MD, has about 500 slides, plus the calibrated photographs taken by Harvey. “Other slides and snippets are distributed among a dozen museum and university researchers.”

One thing blows all of this off. Photographs of Harvey’s brain showed that the famous big-brained Einstein… actually had a physically small brain.

But some people really want a genius’ brain to be different from the rest of ours. One of the first to be treated this way was the German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, who died in 1855. The anatomist who obtained Gauss’s brain ended up examining 964 other brains, including those of the poet Bryon and the naturalist Cuvier, as well as to manual workers and female cleaners. The problem was, this anatomist found similar characteristics in people from all walks of life.

“Despite the enthusiastic efforts of the past two centuries to discern the anatomy of talent or genius, scientists aren’t much closer to finding it now than they were in the 1800s,” notes Burrell.

We don’t know who, if anyone, was born with a “mathematical” or “genius” brain, Burrell concludes, and it probably doesn’t matter. “Behind the great achievements of a Gauss or an Einstein there is in each case a life dedicated to contemplation, curiosity, collaboration and, perhaps above all, hard work.”

This article appeared on JSTOR Daily, where news meets their academic correspondence.

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