Einstein’s Brain

by Leanne Ogasawara

Einstein_1921_by_F_Schmutzer_-_restorationEinstein was adamant. He did not want a large public funeral.

He wanted to be immediately cremated with his ashes scattered before anyone had time to make a fuss.

Fair enough, right?

Einstein biographer Walter Isaacson reminds us of the 1727 funeral of Sir Isaac Newton. Like Einstein, Newton was a superstar of his day. And so not surprisingly, Newton was buried with the highest honors at Westminster Abbey in London. Pallbearers included not only the lord high chancellor, but two dukes and three earls. Most of the fellows of the Royal Society were there as well to honor one of the greatest scientists the world had ever known. Einstein, says Isaacson, could have easily commanded such a large-scale state funeral. For Einstein was held in similarly high esteem by the people of his time. President Eisenhower famously declared that no other man has contributed more to the expansion of knowledge in the 20th century than Einstein. Many felt he was the greatest man of the twentieth century and a state funeral would have been not only appropriate –but expected.

Einstein, however, had other ideas. And immediately after his death on April 18, 1955, he was quietly cremated in Trenton, New Jersey. This took place on the afternoon he died before most people had even heard the news. The cremation was attended by all of twelve people; after which his ashes were scattered in the nearby Delaware River, as his great friend and Princeton colleague Otto Nathan read a few lines from Goethe's poetry.

This quiet funeral, for me, perfectly captures the man that was Einstein. He had wanted to be quickly cremated with no fanfare because, he said, he did not want his final resting place to become an object of morbid fascination.

But, alas, this was not to be. In what is an absolutely outrageous story, Einstein's brain was stolen. It then took on a life of its own as kind traveling relic around the country.

How is this possible?

As is well-known, Einstein died on April 167, 1955 from an abdominal aneurism. He died in Princeton Hospital, and the autopsy took place there. Otto Nathan was standing by and watched horrified as the pathologist performing the autopsy took an electric saw and cut open Einstein's skull to extract his brain. This pathologist then–without permission– embalmed Einstein's brain. Einstein's son Hans Albert was justifiably furious when he heard from Nathan what had happened and called the hospital to complain, but the mild-mannered pathologist Thomas Harvey assured him that it had been done in the name of science. And "Your father surely would have wanted that." When news got out, institutions and scientists from around the world begged Harvey for some of the brain to study, but Harvey refused and guarded it like he would a religious relic, keeping it with him as he moved from place to place around the country.

It's true.

Then, in what is even more mind-boggling, when Harvey left Princeton Hospital he had the gall to take the brain with him! Prior to this first he had sent the specimen to Philadelphia where it was cut into 240 slices and preserved in celloidin for future transfer onto scientific slides. The slices were then stored in two mason jars which Harvey then carted from place to place with him around the country. Not living a very stable life, he would sometimes send a specimen out willy-nilly to random scientists whose work caught his eye! But very few scientific papers were ever written –and finally after forty years of what can only be described as a crime against humanity, Harvey decided to bring the remains back to the Princeton Hospital!

And so, Einstein's career as a wandering relic came to an end.

Isaacson tells the story in the epilogue of his biography and refers the curious reader to check out a book, by Michael Paterniti, called Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain (and you won't want to miss this Harper's piece written about the incident by the same author here).


GalileoWhat is this obsession with relics?

Probably since our earliest beginnings, humans being have shown great reverence to the bodies of the recently dead. Many cultures have elaborate funerary rites, and the hearts or the brains of the dead have been venerated by many cultures and seen to possess a spiritual power and charisma. Poet Percy Shelley's friends, for example, plucked his heart right out of the funeral fire after he had drowned in Italy to bring it back to England.

In some cultures it is the heart that matters; while for others it is the brain.

We all know about the head hunters of old Borneo, who sought heads to gain spiritual power. Likewise in Europe, with the rise of modern medical science, the head became seen as the great prize. And so, many famous heads (and brains) of the dead have gone missing–from Haydn, Poncho Villa and Emanuel Swedenborg to the disappearance of JFK.

Scientific study is one thing but what happened to Einstein's brain can only be described as something bordering on a religious quest. Apparently, Harvey kept the brain with him at all times and would trot them out when he wanted to put on a show and impress people. Forever promising to write scientific papers, when it comes down to it, he did nothing more than guard the relic religiously. As Paterniti describes, it was not just Harvey who held the brain in what can beset be described as religious awe. Marion Diamond of UCLA would tell of her first encounter with Einsteins brain as "A tingle, a revelation." It is not surprising that anything associated with his person would have a certain mystique or power. Despite my initial horror and outrage about this story, still something about it is almost reassuring. In fact, a few years ago, I had wondered in these pages whether things or people have the power to move us in a significant way anymore? There was a time (the time Umberto Eco likes to write about) when people were obsessed by fantastical beings and engaged in great quests for powerful objects. Like the draw that certain mountains have on mountaineers, certain objects had the power to draw people toward them.

In particular, relics (body parts or items associated with important religious figures) were big business. Think of Sainte-Chappele, built to house the Crown of Thorns . There were endless quests for the Holy Grail. Eco's Baudolino is almost entirely taken up with the relic trade and the role played by faith (faith in "the fragrance" of these relics: where it is "the perfume that is true," not necessarily the relic itself). This kind of devotion to relics is famously practiced by Catholics and Buddhists, and probably harkens back to an ancient propensity to become enchanted by things–especially those relics connected to saints and martyrs as well as that of kings and historical giants.

From the foreskin of Christ to the Stalin's Moscow Brain Institute this chasing after dead body parts has gone on since the beginning of time, I suppose.

Einstein, of course, knew all about celebrity worship from his Pasadena days. Plus, he was aware that it was not just Christian saints and Soviet luminaries whose mortal remains were venerated but those of scientists as well! Think of Galileo's finger (kept in a reliquary in a museum in Florence, where it is said to be forever after giving the finger to Rome) or Antonia Scarpa's head, which was removed after his death by a disgruntled assistant and ended up on display in the museum of the University of Pavia (gruesome story here). Having lived himself in Pavia, Einstein surely would have been aware of the potential for trouble after he died! No, Einstein was too smart for that and arranged for a hasty scattering of all his remains.

And yet, something happened. For even the great Einstein could not have seen this curveball coming.

For me, the story of Einstein's brain is strangely moving. For better or worse, I am the type of person who cares a lot about funerals, and I have detailed instructions for my own (I even have my own pair of reliquaries for any of the kids who might want to keep one of my fingers or toes around someday), I've always been amazed and even impressed by those people who don't care about what happens to their remains after they die. They seem to be free from fear and more detached from the self than I am. Or anyway, that is how it seems. But there is also a kind of reverence and affirmation of life to suggest that even in death, the embodied person matters.

Einstein's loathing of celebrity and wish to never become the object of worship illuminates so brilliantly one of the key underpinning aspects of his personality: tolerance and humility. Einstein had a deep respect for religion. But this was part of his boundless humility; for not only did Einstein repeatedly show a dislike for ideologists who pretend to have all the answers (Einstein stands out as unique for his ability to change his mind when new facts presented themselves) but he spoke often of the way he saw freedom of thought and a sense of awe as being fundamental to creativity and science.

Of course, he had stated famously that, "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." Despite not being a believer in the formal sense, he still firmly believed that no one has the right to tell others what to think and believe–for to dictate to others what to think implies you somehow have all the answers. It was this openness and flexibility that Isaacson sees as being the wellspring to his gigantic intellectual achievements. I agree. Einstein is my hero. For he was humble enough to be capable of changing his mind in the face of new facts, and he forever bristled at any authoritarianism that stood in the way of creative and free human thought. His humane humility led to his astonishing and endless creativity. Is it any wonder that the world could not get enough of him? Even in death….


Reliquaries by Andy Paiko

Updike on Isaacson's Einstein

Atlas Obscura on relics of famous scientists

National Geographic on the case of Einstein's stolen brain


Like what you're reading? Don't keep it to yourself!
Share on Facebook
Tweet about this on Twitter
Share on Reddit
Share on LinkedIn
Email this to someone