What Happened to Albert Einstein’s Brain After He Died?

Albert Einstein was one of the most brilliant minds of our time. After he died, his brain was removed and studied. Someone pulled Albert Einstein’s brain within seven and a half hours of his death and it was preserved and stored in a jar at the pathology department of Princeton Hospital.

Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who performed the autopsy, took the brain without permission from Einstein’s family. In this blog post, we will explore the fascinating story of Albert Einstein’s brain.

A Brief Overview of Einstein’s Life

Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany, in 1879 to a middle-class Jewish family. When he was young, his family moved to Munich. Einstein attended school until fifteen, then withdrew from school in 1894. He enjoyed playing music and learning about science and mathematics. Later, he moved to Switzerland, where he decided to pick up his education again. 

Fortunately, Einstein began attending the Zurich Polytechnic Institute. In 1896, the German native renounced his citizenship in Germany and remained a stateless person when he finally became a citizen of Switzerland.

A few years later, in 1901, he graduated from the Zurich Polytechnic Institute. He then tried to find a teaching job but had little luck; instead, he took a position as a clerk at the Swiss patent office in Bern. He married his love interest and fellow student Mileva Maric, and they had their first child Lieserl in 1902 and two more children, Hans (1904) and Eduard (1910).

Einstein’s Groundbreaking Articles

It wasn’t until he wrote a paper on his theory of special relativity that he began to make a name for himself in the scientific community. While working at the patent office, he had plenty of time to think about and work on his theories. In 1905, he published four articles that would forever change the world of science.

Among those articles included “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” “Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content?” “On the Movement of Small Particles Suspended in Stationary Liquids Required by the Molecular-Kinetic Theory of Heat” “On a Heuristic Point Of View Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light.” From these great works came the famous E=mc2 equation.

His work challenged and disproved the Newtonian idea of absolute time and space and provided the world with its first concrete theories in over 250 years.

In addition, his works created a branch of physics known as Quantum Mechanics, which would lay the foundation for technologies like lasers, transistors, and nuclear power. He’s also responsible for the Photoelectric effect and the theories for General Relativity.

Einstein’s Brain Begins Its Journey

After teaching at Princeton and contributing more to the scientific community, Albert Einstein died of an aortic aneurysm on April 18th, 1955. Before his death, Einstein left explicit instructions to cremate his body and scatter it secretly. He did not want to be studied or idolized.

Unfortunately, Thomas Harvey decided to remove Einstein’s brain without permission. When everyone discovered what he had done, he was still able to get permission from Hans Albert. However, the stipulation was that any research conducted would be solely in the interest of science. Thomas was happy to oblige even though he lost his job at the Princeton hospital.

Harvey then took Einstein’s brain with him to Philadelphia, where he weighed Einstein’s brain before carving it into 240 pieces. Next, he divvied up the physicist’s brain with other researchers.

Finally, the United States government commissioned a portion of his brain, thinking it would give them an edge over the Russians. Throughout the time, Harvey meticulously recorded all of the information he could glean from studying the grey matter of Einstein.

Thomas Harvey’s Life Changes

Harvey’s life changed dramatically because he was obsessed with Einstein’s brain. He couldn’t keep a steady job, and his marriage fell apart. So, Thomas moved to the midwest in Wichita, Kansas. He worked in a biological testing lab, keeping Albert’s brain stashed under a beer cooler.

He moved on again, establishing himself as a practitioner in Weston, Missouri, where he continued to study the brain in his spare time. Shortly after this, Harvey and some collaborators published the first study on Einstein’s brain.

Why He Took Einstein’s Brain

The article was very controversial and claimed that Einstein’s brain had an abnormal proportion of glia and neurons, which would keep the neurons oxygenated and admittedly more engaged with tasks.

Another study in 1996 claimed that Einstein’s neurons were more tightly packed than usual and could allow faster processing of information. Unfortunately, Harvey lost his medical license in 1988 after failing his competency exam.

This was likely due to his age and inability to keep up with the changing medical landscape; despite this, he remained devoted to studying the brain.

Other studies mentioned that Einstein’s inferior parental lob was wider than the average brain, which could have made him a visual thinker. A 2012 study claimed that Einstein contained an extra ridge in the mid-frontal lobe, associated with planning and memory.

Did Harvey steal and study Einstein’s brain for scientific gains? Was he trying to understand the man who contributed many critical scientific principles? Or was he a man who became fixated and driven by his curiosity?

Harvey’s Studies Are Disputed

While these theories sound legitimate, there is no way to know for sure if any of this is true because the data presented is entirely subjective. Several voices, like Thomas Hines from UCLA, claim the studies conducted on Einstein’s brain are biased and lack scientific evidence.

This could be partly because living brains have infinite characteristics to study while dead brains are finite. In other words, there is a night and day difference between them.

Before his death in 2007, Harvey donated the remaining portions of Einstein’s brain in his possession. It is currently on display at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.

While some people may think that what Thomas Harvey did was wrong, he was able to give us a glimpse into the mind of one of the greatest scientific minds of our time.

Even if scientists dispute the evidence presented in the studies conducted on Einstein’s brain, it is still fascinating to think about what could have been going on inside his head.

Did he have some unique advantage that the rest of us don’t have? We may never know for sure, but it is fun to speculate. Einstein’s brain was and continues to be a controversial topic in the scientific community.

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