What Happened to Einstein’s Brain?

The brain of Albert Einstein has been a subject of much research and speculation. Einstein’s brain was removed within seven and a half hours of his death. The brain has attracted attention because of Einstein’s reputation as one of the foremost geniuses of the 20th century, and apparent regularities or irregularities in the brain have been used to support various ideas about correlations in neuroanatomy with general or mathematical intelligence. Scientific studies have suggested that regions involved in speech and language are smaller, while regions involved with numerical and spatial processing are larger. Other studies have suggested an increased number of glial cells in Einstein’s brain.

Einstein’s autopsy was conducted in the lab of Thomas Stoltz Harvey. Shortly after Einstein’s death in 1955, Harvey removed and weighed the brain at 1230g.[3] Harvey then took the brain to a lab at the University of Pennsylvania where he dissected it into several pieces; some of the pieces he kept to himself while others were given to leading pathologists. He claimed he hoped that cytoarchitectonics would reveal useful information.[4] Harvey injected 50% formalin through the internal carotid arteries and afterward suspended the intact brain in 10% formalin. Harvey photographed the brain from many angles. He then dissected it into about 240 blocks (each about 1 cm3) and encased the segments in a plastic-like material called collodion.[5][6] Harvey also removed Einstein’s eyes, and gave them to Henry Abrams, Einstein’s ophthalmologist.[4] Whether or not Einstein’s brain was preserved with his prior consent is a matter of dispute. Ronald Clark’s 1979 biography of Einstein states, “he had insisted that his brain should not be used for research and that he be cremated”, but more recent research has suggested that this may not be true and that the brain was removed and preserved without the permission of either Einstein or his close relatives. Hans Albert Einstein, the physicist’s elder son, endorsed the removal after the event, but insisted that his father’s brain should be used only for research to be published in scientific journals of high standing.[4]

In 1978, Einstein’s brain was rediscovered in Harvey’s possession by journalist Steven Levy.[7] Its sections had been preserved in alcohol in two large mason jars within a cider box for over 20 years. In 2010, Harvey’s heirs transferred all of his holdings constituting the remains of Einstein’s brain to the National Museum of Health and Medicine, including 14 photographs of the whole brain (which was now in fragments) never before revealed to the public.[8][9]

More recently, 46 small portions of Einstein’s brain were acquired by the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. In 2013, these thin slices, mounted on microscope slides, went on exhibit in the museum’s permanent galleries.[10]

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