Revisiting Einstein’s Brain, Six Decades Later

What went on between the ears of the legendary Princeton genius? More than 60 years after his death, we’re still pondering that mystery.

Dr. Frederick Lepore's home in Princeton brims with books, and even a jar of preserved brains (on window ledge) although not Albert Einstein's.
Dr. Frederick Lepore's home in Princeton brims with books, and even a jar of preserved brains (on window ledge) although not Albert Einstein's.
Photo by Frank Veronsky

One day in May 2000, in the autopsy room of the old Princeton Hospital on Witherspoon Street, Dr. Frederick Lepore aimed a 35mm camera loaded with Kodacolor film at two glass jars filled with what he described as “little pieces of beige stuff in gauze.” They were chunks of the brain that had upended humanity’s understanding of the universe. They were all that remained of Albert Einstein.

The human brain is Lepore’s workplace—he has been a neurologist and professor of opthalmology at Rutgers since 1980—and he had lately taken a deep interest in the brain of Princeton’s legendary genius, whose onetime home was just three blocks from his own. Lepore was working on “Dissecting Genius,” an article for the medical journal Cerebrum; his photo of the floating bits of brain would be the cover shot. “After I wrote that, I thought, ‘Case closed, nowhere more to go, I’m done,’” he says.

But as he eventually learned, the case is never really closed in the strange and twisting saga of Einstein’s brain. Over the last four years, in between his clinical practice and his teaching at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Lepore has tried to make some sense of this modern enigma by writing a book—Finding Einstein’s Brain, due June 25 from Rutgers University Press.

“The ultimate mystery, the holy grail, is: Can you get further insight into the mind by looking at two pounds of gray matter?” says Lepore, who grew up in Englewood and became a Princeton English major long after Einstein was gone from the modest, white clapboard house on Mercer Street, where he spent his last two decades. “What does the brain have to do with the mind, and what does it have to do with genius?”

When Einstein died of an aortic aneurysm at Princeton Hospital in 1955, the pathologist who performed the autopsy had similar questions and persuaded Einstein’s son and the executor of his estate that the brain that conceived the theory of relativity should not be cremated with the rest of the body. Given permission, Dr. Thomas Harvey removed Einstein’s brain, photographed it, and had it cut into 240 pieces, some of which were further sliced into thin strips and mounted onto slides for microscopic study. Harvey carried most of the material with him through a peripatetic life that took him from New Jersey to his native Midwest and back to New Jersey, where he died at age 94 in 2007.

“He was a man of high purpose,” says Lepore, who spent a long afternoon with Harvey at his Titusville home in 2000. “Until the day he died, he was trying to take these materials and get some answers about Einstein’s brain. But this brain cost him. He was subject to criticism in ways you cannot imagine.”

There was criticism for removing the brain in the first place, for not producing his own study of it, and for not giving it to an institution that would study it, for his seemingly casual custodianship of it. (The glass jars that Lepore later photographed were stashed in a cardboard cider box in Harvey’s office in 1978 when New Jersey Monthly reporter Steven Levy tracked him down in Wichita, Kansas, for the story that set off the first wave of interest. That piece, “My Search for Einstein’s Brain,” on the cover of the magazine’s August 1978 issue and can be read here.)

Harvey did parcel out specimens to some serious researchers, although the records are incomplete on exactly how many and to whom. It was a study done in collaboration with one of those researchers, Canadian neuroscientist Sandra Witelson, that set off another wave of interest in 1999 with its finding that the architecture of Einstein’s brain, especially in his uncommonly large parietal lobe (which was 15 percent wider and more symmetrical than an average person’s), may have given him an unusually great capacity for visualizing complex ideas.

Intrigued by Witelson’s study, Lepore visited both the brain and Harvey for his own journal article, but then set Einstein aside—apart from casual musings when his neighborhood rambles took him past the old Mercer Street house—until he was contacted in 2007 by Dean Falk, a paleoanthropologist and professor who was also intrigued by the brain. Could he help her? Harvey had died, but his companion, Cleora Wheatley, a former nurse at Princeton Hospital, was still in the Titusville house.

“I called her, and she said, ‘I’ve got some stuff in the cellar,’” Lepore recalls. But before he could examine the stuff—photographs, documents and hundreds of slides of brain tissue—Harvey’s family donated the material to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Maryland, where access to it is restricted. After many requests, Lepore and Falk finally got in—for a single day in September 2011.

What they wanted to see were the photographs Harvey had taken before the brain was dissected. The few grainy images that accompanied Witelson’s journal article were the only ones previously available. At the National Museum, they found dozens more, from different angles. Lepore had a digital camera this time and started snapping photos of the photos.

“So here are the frontal gyri,” Lepore says, stabbing his finger across a photo of Einstein’s brain as he counts the folds on its surface. “One. Two. Three. And four. Number four there—that’s not standard. That’s pretty rare.”

The new photographs allowed Lepore, Falk and National Museum director Adrianna Noe to map and describe the brain with more precision than previous researchers, confirming some earlier findings and adding some new ones—like that fourth gyrus, “which may have provided underpinnings for some of his extraordinary cognitive abilities,” they wrote, “including the productive use of thought experiments.” Their resulting article in Brain: A Journal of Neurology was downloaded 50,000 times, Lepore says.

“That’s 50,000 downloads of pure neuroanatomy,” he adds. “If you have a sleep disturbance, try reading that 24-page article. It’s just pure morphology—this gyrus that, that gyrus this. That’s when you realize, Oh my God, people are really, really interested in Einstein’s brain.”

He decided to tell the story to a wider audience in a book that would not just measure gyri, but also explore the thought experiments that blossomed from them, like the one where a 16-year-old Einstein imagined how fast he would have to travel to catch a light beam, which helped lead him toward the theory of special relativity.

“He is the poster boy for the intellectual attainments of humanity,” Lepore says. “Part of the reason this thing has garnered attention is that we don’t have any comparable brain. We don’t have a Newton. We don’t have a Galileo.”

But while much is known about both the anatomy of Einstein’s brain and the ideas it generated, what came from where—let alone how and why—remains a mystery. “So you go, ‘Okay, smart guy, where in there is general relativity?’ and I’m going to go, ‘Hmmmmm,’” Lepore says. “The trap you do not want to fall into is to draw a direct line between the two, because if you do, they say you’re a phrenologist. All you can do at the end of the day is say you’ve seen the body of work the likes of which none of us have ever seen, and you’ve got an interesting brain, and speculate along with me.”

He looked at the picture again. “Was he in there? A lot of him was in there, unless you’re a dyed-in-the wool dualist,” he says, referring to the belief that the brain and the mind are separate. And Einstein’s brain, he believes, still has lessons to teach. “It’s inert. There’s no electricity, there’s no neurotransmitters, and it probably changed a little from 1905, when he made his greatest discoveries. But it’s all we have.”

Kevin Coyne is a frequent contributor to New Jersey Monthly.

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