Monday, April 20, 2009

Closer Look at Einstein's Brain


I'm kinda squeamish about anything to do with anatomy. I can't even stand to look at my own blood whenever they take some out to do a blood test (and to think that when I was a child, my mom wanted me to be a medical doctor as a career!). So this report on Einstein's brain that has been preserved this long is not really something right up my alley.

When Einstein died in 1955 at Princeton Hospital in New Jersey, his brain was removed by a local pathologist named Thomas Harvey, who preserved, photographed, and measured it. A colleague of Harvey's cut most of the brain into 240 blocks and mounted them on microscope slides. From time to time, he sent the slides to various researchers, although few publications resulted. Harvey, who moved around the United States several times in the course of his career, kept the jar containing what remained of the brain in cardboard box. Finally, in 1998, Harvey--who died in 2007--gave the jar to the University Medical Center of Princeton, where it remains today.

I'm a bit fuzzy on the historical account of this whole thing. Was there any consent either by Einstein before he died, or by any of Einstein's family, that his brain could be removed and studied? The link given in that article about the story of Einstein's brain doesn't clarify this, and none of the biographies that I've read about Einstein said anything about this either (or maybe I forgot).

One would think that if he requested cremation, that all of him should have been cremated unless he has indicated that certain organs can be used for scientific studies. I don't think that is out of his character to give himself up for science, but still, if this was done without his prior consent, then this whole thing is rather disrespectful, both towards him and his family.



Christine said...

Einstein did request cremation. According to the biography written by Walter Isaacson (which happened to be beside my bed here) Thomas Harvey didn't have permission to keep the brain after the autopsy.
"When he stitched the body back up, he decided, without asking permission, to embalm Einstein's brain and keep it." (page 545)

ZapperZ said...

Well then, that is nasty.

They should stop doing any more "research" on his brain, because they are working on "stolen merchandise".

I'm surprised that the Einstein's estate and descendant are not suing to get his brain back. At the very least, they should get their permission to continue.


Neil Gunther said...

I'm sure I read somewhere that AE had donated his body to science (whatever that means and however that was done), but that still doesn't justify Harvey stealthing off with his brain and slicing it up like a bologna. And worse than *any* legal issues, it surely isn't science.

If you give a Mac and PC motherboard to a complete computer novice and ask them, "Which is superior?" what are they gonna tell ya? To 1st order, they're the same and you can't distinguish w/o the software. Nonetheless, I've also seen "learned" papers claiming to "see" the difference in AE's brain hardware, in terms of the width of his cranium, and the density of glial cells and God knows what, irrespective of the wetware.

Mike said...

A not-great book (that I found entertaining) co-starring Einstein's brain is "Driving Mr. Albert" by Michael Paterniti. The book chronicles the author's attempt to drive Harvey and Einstein's brain across the country to return the brain to Einstein's granddaughter.

In reference to this discussion, the book makes clear that the brain was taken without permission, and I don't remember why the granddaughter didn't take it back, but it's in the book.