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The Long, Strange Journey of Einstein's Brain

Author Brian Burrell's book chronicles the scientific odyssey to understand genuis and madness through the study of famous brains, including those of Albert Einstein, Walt Whitman and Vladimir Lenin.
Author Brian Burrell's book chronicles the scientific odyssey to understand genuis and madness through the study of famous brains, including those of Albert Einstein, Walt Whitman and Vladimir Lenin.

Albert Einstein died 50 years ago Monday. While that day marked the end of his life, it was only the beginning of a long, strange journey for his brain.

Thomas Harvey, a doctor at the hospital where Einstein died, removed the famous scientist's brain and kept it with him over the next four decades. Harvey wanted to know what made Einstein a genius.

As Brian Burrell writes in his new book Postcards from the Brain Museum, Harvey wasn't alone.

Scientists have long sought to understand the nature of genius and before computers and imaging technology, they had few options other than studying the actual brain.

Burrell discusses the long, strange journey of Einstein's brain.

Read an excerpt from Postcards from the Brain Museum

Chapter 14


THE BRAIN OF Albert Einstein has acquired a notoriety out of all proportion to its value as an anatomical specimen. It is not part of any collection, it did not motivate a new theory of brain function, nor has anything of scientific value resulted from its study. Instead it has become exactly what Einstein most feared: a pop-culture icon.

The strange journey of Einstein's brain began on the evening of April 17, 1955, when the seventy-six-year-old physicist was admitted to Princeton Hospital complaining of chest pains. He died early the next morning of a burst aortic aneurysm. As in the cases of Carl Gauss and Walt Whitman, the issue of permission to perform an autopsy is clouded by subsequent testimony. Thomas Harvey, the pathologist on call that evening, would later say, "I just knew we had permission to do an autopsy, and I assumed that we were going to study the brain." As reporters soon discovered, Harvey did not have permission. Nor did he have a legal right to remove and keep the brain for himself. When the fact came to light a few days later, Harvey managed to solicit a reluctant and retroactive blessing from Einstein's son, Hans Albert, with the now-familiar stipulation that any investigation would be conducted solely in the interest of science, and that any results would be published in reputable scientific journals. But Einstein's dignity had already been compromised. He had left behind specific instructions regarding his remains: cremate them, and scatter the ashes secretly in order to discourage idolaters. Yet not only did Harvey take the brain, he also removed the physicist's eyeballs and gave them to Henry Abrams, Einstein's eye doctor. They remain to this day in a safe deposit box in New York City, and are frequently rumored to be poised for the auction block.

Within months of the autopsy, Harvey was dismissed from Princeton Hospital for refusing to surrender his precious specimen. His assurances may have satisfied Hans Albert Einstein, but Harvey's boss, the hospital's director, perhaps gauging his man somewhat better, was not impressed by the plan, and Harvey's tenure as a pathologist came to an end.

It should be emphasized that Thomas Harvey was not a brain specialist. His understanding of the brain did not extend beyond the postmortem diagnosis of disease, atrophy, or injury. Which is to say that he had neither the means nor the expertise to undertake the study he had proposed to Einstein's son. Although his accounts of the incident have varied considerably over the years, it seems that he removed the brain at the request of his mentor, Harry Zimmerman, who was Einstein's personal physician. Why he kept it will never be known for certain, but it can be inferred from comments made to various reporters that Harvey was inspired by Oskar Vogt's study of Lenin's brain, and he had the vague idea that cytoarchitectonics might shed some light on Einstein's case. A simpler and more appealing explanation is that he got caught up in the moment and was transfixed in the presence of greatness. What he quickly discovered was that he had bitten off more than he could chew.

After losing his job, Harvey took the brain to a Philadelphia hospital, where a technician sectioned it into over two hundred blocks and embedded the pieces in celloidin using a variation of the Economo method. Harvey gave some of the pieces to Harry Zimmerman, and placed the remainder in two formalin-filled jars, which he stored in the basement of his house in Princeton. Occasionally, he would try to interest a brain researcher in his quest, but most of the inquiries he fielded came from reporters. Whenever they asked what was being done, Harvey would confidently proclaim that he was just one year away from publishing his results. He would continue to give the same answer for the next forty years.

Harvey's marriage soon fell apart, and he left Princeton in search of work. After his wife threatened to dispose of the brain, he returned to retrieve it and took it with him to the Midwest. For a time he worked as a medical supervisor in a biological testing lab in Wichita, Kansas, keeping the brain in a cider box stashed under a beer cooler. He moved again, to Weston, Missouri, and practiced medicine while trying to study the brain in his spare time, only to lose his medical license in 1988 after failing a three-day competency exam. He then relocated to Lawrence, Kansas, took an assembly-line job in a plastic-extrusion factory, moved into a second-floor apartment next to a gas station, and befriended a neighbor, the beat poet William Burroughs. The two men routinely met for drinks on Burroughs's front porch. Harvey would tell stories about the brain, about cutting off chunks to send to researchers around the world. Burroughs, in turn, would boast to visitors that he could have a piece of Einstein any time he wanted.

In the early 1990s, Harvey returned to Princeton, his wanderings not quite over. What had merely verged on the absurd in the early days crossed the line in 1997 when he embarked on a cross-country road trip with a freelance magazine writer named Michael Paterniti. Harvey wanted to meet Einstein's granddaughter in California. Paterniti eagerly signed on as a driver, and the two men set off from New Jersey with Einstein's brain in the trunk of Harvey's Buick Skylark. When he met the granddaughter, Harvey toyed with the idea of giving her the brain. He even left it at her house accidentally. But she didn't want it. In the end, the two men and the brain parted ways: Paterniti to seek fame and fortune with his story, Harvey to seek peace of mind at his girlfriend's house in Princeton, and the brain to end its days at the pathology lab where it had all started some forty years earlier.

In his book Driving Mr. Albert, Paterniti describes Harvey as an eccentric if not quixotic man with a booming voice and a odd habit of laughing at inappropriate moments. The only time Harvey seems to act responsibly is when he returns to Princeton and entrusts what remains of Einstein's brain to the pathologist who holds his old job at the hospital. Having disposed of the specimen that has determined the course of half of his life, he can at last go home.

During the first thirty years of this strange odyssey, the study of Einstein's brain went nowhere. To his credit, Thomas Harvey stuck to his promise. At any time, he could have sold the brain piecemeal or whole for a quick profit. Yet he never stopped trying to find researchers willing to study it. Not many were interested. Some dismissed the idea as nonsense, as starry-eyed lunacy. A few others agreed to have a look. Harry Zimmerman, who possessed about a sixth of the specimen, found nothing unusual, at least not in the brain itself. He was not so sure about his former colleague, and he began to deflect reporters' questions by claiming that Harvey was dead.

It was not until 1985 that Harvey finally caught a break. A Berkeley researcher read about the brain and its eccentric guardian, and she contacted Harvey to request a piece of it. She had an intriguing idea.

DURING THE 1970s, a UCLA neuroscientist named Marian Diamond conducted a series of experiments involving cell counts in the brains of rats. She segregated the rats into two groups and placed one group in a mentally stimulating environment, while consigning the other to a deprived environment. Over time, she found that the enriched environment produced more robust brains, while the deprived environment literally starved the brains. In other words, Diamond studied brain plasticity -- changes in anatomical structure brought about by environmental factors. She measured these changes by painstakingly counting individual brain cells on carefully prepared microscope slides.

In the early 1980s, Diamond heard about the existence of Einstein's brain, and she wondered if a similar study might demonstrate the same phenomenon in humans. She proposed the idea to Thomas Harvey, who at first refused, then relented, and finally mailed off four numbered blocks from Einstein's cortex. These became the basis for an unusual comparative study.

Diamond published her findings under the title "On the Brain of a Scientist: Albert Einstein." The article appeared in an obscure journal called Experimental Neurology in 1985, thirty years after Einstein's death, and not a moment too soon for Thomas Harvey. It began with a startlingly unscientific claim: "Albert Einstein is generally conceded to have had one of the greatest scientific minds that ever existed." While not a particularly controversial statement, it is an unprovable one, and it unintentionally set the tone for what followed.

Diamond had assembled a control group consisting of eleven brains of former veterans hospital patients, all men, and all dead from non-neurological disorders. Their average age was sixty-four. She had requested from Harvey sample blocks from Brodmann areas 9 and 39 in the left and right hemispheres of Einstein's brain in order to "follow the lead provided by [Einstein's] introspection." The blocks came from the association cortex, "the last domains of the cortex to myelinate, indicating their comparatively late development," as Diamond put it.

Diamond would have preferred to use Camillo Golgi's staining method, the most revealing of the available techniques. But because the specimens had long ago been encased in celloidin, which undermines the Golgi process, she settled for a different, less-revealing stain. Her plan was to count individual neurons and two types of glial cells known as astrocytes and oligodendrocytes, to come up with four total counts: neurons, astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, and combined glial cells. From these counts she constructed three ratios comparing neurons per unit area to each of the three glial cell counts. She then compared Einstein's cell counts and ratios to the counts and ratios for the control group. Seven measures (four counts and three ratios) from four blocks resulted in twenty-eight possible statistical comparisons.

After checking her results, Diamond rejected all but the neuron-to-glial-cell ratio ("it was necessary to pool all glial cells counted to attain statistically significant differences," she wrote), reducing the twenty-eight possible tests to four. Of these, Einstein differed significantly from the control group in only one Brodmann area -- number 39 of the left hemisphere -- in which he had a markedly lower neuron-to-glial-cell ratio.

Glial cells are support cells for neurons. They continue to divide throughout one's lifetime, whereas neurons do not (or at least, in light of very recent evidence, not very much). Consequently, there are only two ways for the neuron-to-glial-cell ratio to increase. Either the neurons die off too rapidly (which happens to victims of senile dementia), or the glial cells increase in number. In her previous studies, Diamond had found that enriched environments result in a proliferation of glial cells, thus lowering the neuron-to-glial-cell ratios in rats. The same ratios in Einstein's brain, she writes, "suggests a response by glial cells to greater neuronal metabolic need."

It wasn't much. A significant result in one out of twenty-eight comparison tests was not enough to allow Diamond to cry "Eureka." But it was enough for her to say that she had found something that "might reflect the enhanced use of this tissue in the expression of [Einstein's] unusual conceptual powers." Of course, once the press got hold of the story, she might as well have cried "Eureka."

Almost anything connected to Albert Einstein is news, and Marian Diamond's article was no exception. It caused a sensation. The wire services picked it up and flooded the once-obscure researcher with phone calls. She became a celebrity. Experts and nonexperts weighed in with comments on her study. Promoted from conjecture to fact without the usual review process, it found its way into the latest editions of many introductory psychology textbooks. At last, a possible explanation for Einstein's genius! But the excitement was premature. It seems that not only was Diamond's work riddled with serious flaws, but so, quite possibly, was Einstein's brain.

AS EINSTEIN'S BIOGRAPHERS have claimed (and as Einstein himself confirmed), he began speaking late, sometime after age three, and remained inarticulate and possibly dyslectic through his early school years. From a neurological standpoint, this could have resulted from the late myelination of key areas of the brain involved in speech, including Brodmann area 39. According to a 1992 study by S. S. Kantha of the Osaka BioScience Institute in Japan, Diamond's cell counts suggest "a strong possibility of some kind of lesion in this specific speech-related area in Einstein's brain which could have resulted in childhood dyslexia."3 In other words, instead of possessing a superior brain, Einstein may have started out with a severely compromised one that subsequently healed. The possibility is especially intriguing because it suggests a theoretical diagnosis that, had Einstein's parents been aware of it, might have led them to steer their son toward the civil service instead of academia. But this would have to remain a mere speculation because Diamond's study, according to Kantha, was fatally flawed. He faulted her control group (who were these people?), the specimen itself (what had it gone through during the previous thirty years?), and Diamond's sketchy presentation of the data (why ratios and not actual cell counts?).

In another peer review, Terence Hines of Pace University, writing in Experimental Neurology in 1998, echoed Kantha's criticisms. Diamond's study, he wrote, "is so seriously flawed that its conclusions should not be accepted." Hines's complaint is the same one lodged against Paul Broca by Stephen Jay Gould in The Mismeasure of Man.

If you look long enough, if you measure a sufficient number of attributes, and if you are highly selective, you can eventually find statistical evidence to support or defeat any claim.

Hines searched through Diamond's statistical analysis for signs of bias. They were not hard to spot. Of the twenty-eight comparison tests she could have carried out, Diamond reported only four, of which just one produced the desired payoff. "It would be surprising indeed," Hines noted, "if from a total of 28 different tests one did not obtain at least one 'significant' result" (especially when using a 95 percent confidence level). Diamond admitted that she rejected those tests that didn't suit her purpose, that failed to show a statistically significant difference between Einstein and the controls. This was the fine print that her readers ignored in their rush to judgment. Hines also faulted the control group. An anonymous and seemingly random group of veterans leaves much to be desired. Who were they? What did they die of? It didn't end there. Diamond also came under attack for irregularities in her preparation technique. Some critics questioned the thicknesses of the tissue slices and the effects this might have had on cell counts.

In light of these faults, only one conclusion emerges as incontestable: that without Einstein's name on it, Diamond's paper would have gone nowhere. Not that any paper that gives marquee status to a genius will automatically generate headlines.

In 1996, Britt Anderson of the University of Alabama waded into the fray in Neuroscience Letters with "Alterations in Cortical Thickness and Neuronal Density in the Frontal Cortex of Albert Einstein." The title tells all. The part of the frontal cortex in question is Brodmann area 9, a block adjacent to the one that Harvey had sent to Marian Diamond. Anderson measured the thickness of Einstein's isocortex (the outer six layers of gray matter), and counted the number of individual cells in a unit square area in order to calculate the size and density of the cells. As a control group, he used the brains of five men, average age sixty-eight. (Einstein died at the age of seventy-six.) The result? No significant differences in either the cell counts or in the size of cell bodies. Anderson did find that Einstein's cortex was thinner, but this was offset by a tighter packing of neurons. If Einstein had had a particularly large brain, then perhaps the dense packing of neurons would indicate a higher-than-normal number of neurons in total. But he did not. By any measure, Einstein had a smallish brain. Most commentators place it "within the average range," but at 1,230 grams, it weighed almost the same as the brains of Whitman and Gambetta, at the bottom of the list of famous men.

Anderson scoured the literature to see if he could find anything that might vindicate this result, and he came up with this: Two years earlier a Canadian researcher had tried to account for the 15 percent advantage in brain size in men over women, given that there is no appreciable difference in IQ. Her explanation? That a more tightly packed cortex might provide an advantage in processing time. The tighter packing of neurons within function-specific modules might actually reduce the interaction time between brain cells, she suggested. In other words, reduction in brain size could result in economy of mental processing. (Suddenly, smaller brains were better.)

Thomas Harvey liked the idea enough to make another one of his offers. Maybe this Canadian researcher could deliver the good news that would allow him to return home at last.

Excerpted from Postcards From the Brain Museum by Brian Burrell Copyright © 2005 by Brian Burrell. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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