Where is Albert Einstein’s brain?

Where is Albert Einstein's brain?

On April 18, 1955, Albert Einstein died of an abdominal aneurysm at the age of 76 at the University Medical Center in Princeton, New Jersey. As planned, the remains of his body were cremated and his ashes were scattered at an unknown location. The person responsible for his autopsy, however, had been careful to keep his brain to study. But where is he today, this famous brain?

A jar of cookies

It is April 18, 1955. Einstein’s body lies on a hospital bed in Princeton, the victim of an abdominal aortic aneurysm. The rumor spread and, very quickly, scientists, journalists, relatives and friends rushed to the scene. Several miles away, a young man named Thomas Harvey leaves his wife to go to work at the hospital. Before leaving the house, she gives him a jar of cookies for his 10 o’clock break. Harvey approaches the hospital and comes across a crowd gathered outside. He passes the entrance and quickly learns the news.

He is also told another piece of news: he is the one who will perform the autopsy.

Harvey, who considered Einstein a true model, then realizes that he has a rare opportunity: that of studying the brain of “the most intelligent man in the world”. US law at the time did not yet define a clear protocol for autopsies, but it had to act quickly: Einstein’s body was to be cremated. Such was the wish of the physicist who wanted that no one could idolize his bones.

While still operating, Harvey then secretly makes his decision. A few hours later, he will take advantage of the presence of the crowd gathered in front of the hospital to surreptitiously leave the premises with his famous cookie jar which, you have understood, no longer contains cookies.

A few days after the autopsy, the theft is finally declared. Fortunately for Thomas Harvey, the latter then managed to convince Hans, Einstein’s son, to let him study the brain, on the sole condition that all investigations and research be carried out for strictly scientific purposes.

Einstein's brain
Einstein’s office on the day of his death. Credit: Jacob Harris

scattered pieces

The pathologist, convinced that there was something unusual in the physicist’s brain, then began to take photographs and meticulous measurements of the organ, before cutting it into 240 blocks. He then requests that some of the blocks be cut into twelve sets of two hundred ultra-thin slices of fabric, each cut to no more than half the width of a human hair.

The pathologist then mounted these brain slices on slides for distribution to a number of researchers who he hoped might uncover the secrets of Einstein’s genius. Harvey reportedly even personally drove many of these samples around the United States and parts of Canada, while keeping the rest of the brain in a jar hidden in a cardboard box in his car.

The doctor kept most of Einstein’s brain until 1998, when he finally returned the remains (170 blocks) to Princeton University Medical Center, where they have since been kept under lock and key. Other doctors will also return their samples. Nearly fifty very thin slices of Einstein’s brain tissue are on display at the Mütter Museum of Medical History in Philadelphia. However, many other pieces are still missing.

einstein brain
Thomas Stoltz Harvey and Einstein’s brain. Credits: D. Folk, F. Lepore, A. Noe

A different brain?

Have these efforts to shed light on the secrets of Einstein’s brain at least been of some use? Not really, but the doctors still detected some differences by comparing this brain with that of control patients.

According to several published studies of the photographs and samples distributed by Harvey, the first appearing in 1985, Einstein’s frontal lobe – the part of the brain associated with working memory and planning – harbored an additional “groove”. The researchers would also have recorded a greater concentration of neurons in certain areas, possibly allowing faster processing of information.

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