Einstein’s brain theft: Why are we so obsessed with famous dead bodies?

What We’ve Learned From Einstein’s Brain—and Its Theft

What We’ve Learned From Einstein’s Brain—and Its Theft

The state of the universe.
April 17 2015 12:46 PM

Einstein’s Brain Heist

Why are we so obsessed with famous dead bodies?

Albert Einstein at Princeton University in 1951
Albert Einstein, pictured at Princeton University in 1951, has come to represent the very face of genius.

Photo by AFP/Getty Images

Sixty years ago this weekend, one of the most famous thefts of the 20th century took place. Its object wasn’t a multimillion-dollar painting or a sparkling jewel, but an organ—a pinkish, wrinkled lump of flesh that the thief hoped might unlock some of the most mysterious secrets in the universe.

The organ, a brain, belonged to Albert Einstein, who probably wouldn’t be very happy about where it ended up: preserved, dissected, examined in science labs across the country, and now on display in a medical museum. Einstein—who died of a ruptured abdominal aneurysm at age 76 on April 18, 1955—left specific wishes for his body after death, which didn’t include any of the above. He asked to be cremated, with his ashes spread in an unmarked location. This was a principled request, a reaction against the hero worship he received in life, which made Einstein uncomfortable. Though we now think of him as the very face of genius, Einstein didn’t think any human deserved the kind of admiration the world laid at his door. It seemed unfair and in “bad taste,” and it spooked him.  “I want to be cremated so people don’t come to worship at my bones,” he told his friend and biographer Abraham Pais.

The fate of Einstein’s brain provides an ironic coda to that request. While Einstein’s bones (and most of the rest of his body) were cremated and his ashes scattered at a secret spot on the Delaware River, in accordance with his wishes, his gray matter took a different course. Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who performed Einstein’s autopsy at Princeton Hospital in New Jersey in 1955, took a bone saw to Einstein’s famous cranium, then a chisel, and snipped out the century’s most famous brain. Then he kept it.

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In Harvey’s defense, what he did wasn’t entirely unusual—hospitals at the time frequently removed interesting or unusual organs for study without explicit permission from the deceased or their families. In later years, Harvey often pointed out that Einstein’s family had given permission for the autopsy (brains are often removed during autopsies for examination), and Otto Nathan, Einstein’s executor, had been present for the gruesome work with bone saw and the chisel. But the family loudly protested that the brain should never have been taken for keeps. Harvey received retroactive approval only after convincing them that he would use the brain strictly for scientific study, with the results published only in scientific journals (no centerfolds splashed across Life).

Harvey was no great brain scientist himself, but he was participating in a long tradition of trying to unlock the secrets of famous minds by studying their architecture—one that has existed since the mid-19th century, when the techniques for preserving the brain as a specimen first allowed scientists to get a good look at its composition. (The scientific study of brains also got kick-started in the late 1800s by “brain donation societies,” when groups of eminent men in Britain and America willed their brains for study by one another. The first, established in France in 1876, was called the Société Mutuelle d’Autopsie, or the Society of Mutual Autopsy.) According to Brian Burrell, author of Postcards From the Brain Museum, Harvey may have been inspired by the pioneering German neurologist Oskar Vogt’s study of Lenin’s brain, which focused on mapping out the minute structures of its cerebral cortex. (Alas, none of Vogt’s results were terribly conclusive.)

It took decades for the first study on Einstein’s brain to appear. Harvey knew he was no neurologist, and after the dust-up with Einstein’s family, he was somewhat skittish about giving pieces of the brain to other scientists. Instead, it stayed in his house, and after Harvey was fired from his job (for reasons that are somewhat obscure), the brain—coated in a plastic-like substance called celloidin and divided into more than 1,000 slices and chunks—accompanied him around the country, from New Jersey to Kansas, then Missouri and back to New Jersey again. According to Burrell, Harvey kept it in a box stashed beneath a beer cooler.

In 1985, neuroscientist Marian Diamond at the University of California at Berkeley published a study suggesting that Einstein had more glial cells per neuron in one section of his left inferior parietal lobe (an area involved in complex reasoning and processing visual stimuli), which might signal “enhanced use” of brain tissue in this area. The study came in for a barrage of criticism about its research methods, from the selective presentation of data to the control group of anonymous dead veterans to the condition of the Einstein sample, which after all, had been hanging out in Harvey’s closets for 30 years before Diamond, after multiple requests, received a sample.

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Subsequent studies of the brain have suggested other intriguing differences, but they tend to be controversial too. There are multiple problems at work: The living brain is extraordinarily complex (some say the most complex object in the universe), which is just part of why it’s challenging to map out its functions, no matter how many pop neuroscience reports say they’ve found the brain region that “lights up” when we play tennis, or cheat on a math exam, or think about God. Furthermore, brains change as people work and learn (witness the famous thickening of the hippocampus in London cabbies), which raises the chicken-or-the-egg question: Did Einstein think as he did because of the way his brain was shaped or vice versa? To make matters worse, dead brains, no matter how well preserved, look very different from living brains. Then there’s the fact that Einstein is a sample size of one: There’s no good set of genius brains to compare his with.

But there’s a more fundamental question at stake. After all, did Harvey take Einstein’s brain just because he wanted to study the architecture of his cells, or was there something less scientific at work? Why are so we obsessed with famous dead bodies, in general? After all, Einstein is far from the only notable figure to have a fuss made over his body: Look at the recent hoopla over Richard III, found under a parking lot and recently reburied with pomp fit for a king.

This is a question I asked myself while writing Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses and something people ask me when I give talks. Of course, in Einstein’s case, the fascination comes partly from our attempts to observe, understand, and ultimately control the way our brains work. Since our culture has decided that Einstein is just about the platonic ideal of the genius, his brain is a specimen par excellence for this endeavor. Other interest in famous dead bodies is similarly scientific, or at least forensic: We’re still trying to figure out what (or who) killed Napoleon, Yasser Arafat, and Pablo Neruda, to name just a few recent examples.

But there’s something subtler and less rational at play. My book contains many examples of people stealing famous body parts, from Joseph Haydn’s skull (swiped by one of his friends for pseudoscientific phrenological purposes) to Galileo’s middle finger, plucked as a souvenir and now on display at a science museum in Florence, Italy. When pressed for explanations about this kind of behavior, I sometimes turn to the anthropological concept of contiguous magic—the idea that two things that have once been in contact continue to operate on each other even after that contact has ended. Basically, we hope that some of the great person’s aura might rub off on those who possess his or her fingers, toes, skull, or brain. It’s part of the same impulse that motivates the veneration of saints’ body parts, which are thought to be a means of communicating with the saints themselves. In fact, as Carolyn Abraham writes in her book Possessing Genius, Einstein thought that science had become the religion of the 20th century, and he sometimes joked that he was the first Jewish saint.

There’s also a strange kind of community to be found around this sort of reverence. Celebrities unite us, in love or hatred, life and death. Even those who don’t consider themselves terribly conversant with pop culture (I include myself in this category) have a basic understanding of who Einstein is, or Michael Jackson, or Madonna. In a world where the bonds of local, familial, and religious identity are fragmenting, celebrities are a kind of touchstone—they’re always the Big Men on Campus, the chieftains and chieftesses of our tribe, the people worth talking about. And the process doesn’t end with death. I spent my 28th birthday making a pilgrimage to Washington Irving’s grave at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, and what struck me most about standing at his grave that sunny October afternoon was the sense of how many had stood in the same place—people of different backgrounds, across time, united only in their love of this one writer. I thought of a trip to Europe a few months before when I’d seen the grooves in the stone floor at Westminster Abbey, where thousands have paid their respect to the royalty of Britain’s past.

We don’t have kings or queens in America, but we do have icons, and Einstein is certainly one of them. In the end, that’s likely the real reason his brain is so valuable. Preserved with an outdated process, its study wrought by methodological difficulties, the brain is unlikely to give up many of its scientific secrets. It means most to us as a symbol of a man who reshaped our understanding of the universe—and the likes of whom we might never see again.