In 1955, pathologist Thomas Harvey performed the autopsy on Einstein’s brain, then simply kept it for himself. What followed was an intense story full of scientific curiosity. There were many people who wanted to know the secret behind Einstein’s genius. Others did not see it as an advantage that his brains were stolen.
In any case, the results of the analysis were more than revealing.
Few historical science stories are as disturbing as they are fascinating. There is no doubt that this story has a tragic side, but it also illustrates man’s intense desire to know himself. Knowing the ins and outs of brains capable of changing the world can serve as a powerful tool for discovering great things.
The brain of the father of relativity is one of those powerful tools. However, Albert Einstein was also an icon and a media figure who had a major social impact. He was very aware of this fact and therefore gave very precise directions for what should happen to him after his death.
Discretion and privacy were paramount. He wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered over a river. Only when all this was done was his death allowed to be announced to the media.
However, something went wrong. No one had accounted for an almost unimaginable factor: Thomas Harvey. After the autopsy, this pathologist simply ran off with Einstein’s brain. This made Einstein become what he never wanted to be; a venerated relic.
The Man Who Wanted Einstein’s Brain
Coincidence and chance worked together in this story. Einstein died on April 18, 1955, at the age of 76, of an aneurysm. They cremated him a few days later. Although his family expected to read about his death in the press, they were surprised with very different news. The New York Times reported that the nuclear physicist’s brain had been removed for scientific research.
The person responsible for this was pathologist Dr. Thomas Harvey. According to some, he was one of Einstein’s greatest admirers. He was also known to have a sort of split personality; he could be both very introverted and a very obsessive, precise scientist.
The chance to perform an autopsy on Einstein’s body was certainly a kind of lucky break for him, one that he certainly couldn’t pass up.
The autopsy and a cellar
He carefully removed Einstein’s brain from his skull. He weighed it, dissected it and kept it in different jars. He then stored these pots safely in the basement of his house. He was not a neurologist, so his goal was not only simple but also ambitious.
He wanted to bring together the best specialists in the world to study every part, fragment and cell of the brain in detail. He then wanted to have the findings published by the most prestigious media as soon as possible, in order to become world famous.
Of course , however , he got nothing of what he wanted. Just the opposite actually. First of all, he lost his job. He was subsequently heavily criticized and condemned by the scientific community. He had also jeopardized his promising career at Princeton University. And to top it all off, he was even abandoned by his wife.
The fact that he had basically “stolen” Einstein’s brain and then kept it in his basement was anything but logical or even pleasant.
Yet he was encouraged by someone to continue his work. This probably sounds very strange, but this person was Hans Albert, the son of Einstein. Though he was furious at first, he was eventually able to come up with a logical justification for it.
Einstein has always advocated for scientific progress. So if analyzing his brain would contribute to the scientific community, Harvey would get his family’s approval. Thus, Harvey was able to continue with his work.
The results of studying Einstein’s brain
The results of Einstein’s brain analysis were first published in 1975 and new results continue to be added. After Hans Albert gave his consent, Harvey’s environment changed.
He was inundated with phone calls, interviews and fame. Reporters even camped in his yard. Science Magazine, as well as the best neuroanatomists in the world called him.
The 240 blocks and twelve sets of 200 slides that Harvey created by dissecting Einstein’s brain began to pay off.
What was hiding behind the most wanted brain in the world?
The first thing that struck me about Albert Einstein’s brain was its size. The brain was smaller than normal.
- The University of California at Berkeley published the results in 1985. They looked at samples of glial cells. These brain cells act as support for neurons and help the brain process information. And what did the studies reveal? They revealed that Einstein had a lower number of glial cells, but that the cells were larger than normal.
- In 1996, the University of Alabama at Birmingham published a paper on Einstein ‘s prefrontal cortex. They found that this part of the brain, which is responsible for spatial cognition and mathematical thinking, was more developed at Einstein.
- In 2012, anthropologist Dean Falk studied pictures of Einstein’s brain. What he could make out of this was amazing. Einstein’s frontal lobe had one more ridge. Normally you have three, but the nuclear physicist had one ‘extra’. According to experts, this part of the brain has to do with planning and working memory.
- In addition, the parietal lobes in his brain were asymmetrical. A sigmoid was also seen in this area. This characteristic pertains to violin-playing musicians who are also left-handed, like Einstein.
- In 2013, Deal Falk, the anthropologist mentioned earlier, examined the corpus callosum of Einstein’s brain. He found that it was thicker than usual. This fact would have ensured that the communication between his two hemispheres was better.
As striking as these findings may seem, we should not overlook an important aspect of them. As Terence Hines, a well-known neurologist, also noted, most of the people who studied Albert Einstein’s brain started their studies with the idea that they were analyzing the brain of a genius.
Everyone was looking for the extraordinary quirks that could explain the genius behind Einstein’s brain.
However, as Hines points out, every brain has something exceptional. This organ is the result of our lives, of what we do. Just something quite small, like playing an instrument or having a creative job, can reorganize different parts of the brain in a certain way.
So, if there is one thing that characterizes the father of the theory of relativity, it was its versatility. He was not only a brilliant physicist, but also spoke several languages and played various instruments. Many suspect that he suffered from Asperger’s syndrome. All these factors gave him a very advanced and specialized brain that was a little on the small side.
Now the scientific community wants to start analyzing his DNA. There seems to be no end to the great respect for this genius and the experimental urge to study his remains.