Is Einstein’s brain kept in a bottle in a small-town doctor’s office near Kansas City?

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Dear Cecil: Is it true Albert Einstein’s brain is kept in a bottle in a small-town doctor’s office near Kansas City? Listener, Mike Murphy show, KCMO radio, Kansas City, Missouri


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

You heard right, friend. What’s more, for a long time the doctor kept the brain in a cardboard box behind a beer cooler. You’d think the mind that unlocked the atom would rate something a little fancier — a place up there with the bowling trophies, at least — but that’s not how things worked out. For 30-some years Big Al’s noodle has been in the somewhat casual custody of Thomas S. Harvey, MD, of Weston, Missouri. Harvey was the pathologist at Princeton Hospital in New Jersey who performed the autopsy when Einstein died in 1955.

Why the brain was preserved at all is not clear; the rest of the body was cremated shortly after death. One biographer says Einstein wanted it to be used for research; the executor of his estate denies this, and says the decision to preserve it was made by his son. At any rate, plans to examine the brain never really got off the ground. One of Harvey’s associates blabbed prematurely to the press and the ensuing publicity antagonized the family. Then Harvey and other researchers couldn’t agree on the best way to proceed with the dissection. The brain eventually did get sliced up (it’s kept in several bottles today), but after that things just sort of fizzled out. Despite repeated promises, neither Harvey nor any of the other original investigators has published anything about the brain to date.

The whole episode might have been a complete waste of time except for the efforts of two neuroanatomists at UC-Berkeley, Marian Diamond and Arnold Scheibel. Several years ago they learned of the brain’s existence and persuaded Harvey to send them some samples. Diamond had done earlier research in which she found that rats who were raised in an intellectually stimulating environment (for a rat) had larger than average brains, and she was curious to see if something similar occurred in humans. Sure enough, she and Scheibel found that one portion of Einstein’s brain contained significantly more “glial” cells than a sampling of ordinary brains. (Glial cells perform various support functions for the neurons, which do the brain’s thinking.) Ergo, it’s possible that if you use your head more, your brain becomes more developed. That may not sound like a real breakthrough, but it beats what anybody else has come up with.

(Editor’s Note:  Dr. Harvey died in 2007; before his death he shared his slides of Einstein’s brain with researchers and donated the remains of the brain to the pathology department at Princeton Hospital.  Please see here and here for more information.)

Cecil Adams

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