The Search for Einstein’s Brain

Upon his death in 1955, Albert Einstein's brain was removed for study. Then it disappeared. Twenty-three years later, the senior editor of New Jersey Monthly finally tracked it down in the unlikeliest of places.

New Jersey Monthly August 1978; etching of Albert Einstein by Charles Wells, courtesy of Dr. George O. Isaacson

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in the August 1978 issue of New Jersey Monthly under the headline “My Search for Einstein’s Brain.” The author, Steven Levy, was senior editor at the time. He later served as senior editor and chief technology writer at Newsweek and senior writer for Wired. He is the author of seven books, mostly on new technology. He currently is editor-in-chief of Medium, a forum for sharing news and stories.

Albert Einstein lived in Princeton. A small house, address 112 Mercer Street. He was a familiar figure in the town, usually walking around in a ragged sweater and tennis shoes, thin gray hair awry, thoughts entangled in a complex mathematical labyrinth. Children loved him; he would occasionally help them with their homework.

In 1955, he was working on a theory of gravitation that he would never perfect. He had turned down the presidency of Israel three years earlier, and was now involved in drafting a letter with Bertrand Russell imploring the nations of the world to abolish war. He was noted as the greatest thinker in the world. He had changed our conception of time and space. But at 76, his health was failing.

The doctors called it a hardened aorta. It leaked blood. He had known about the fault in his heart for several years. When first hearing that the artery might develop an aneurysm that could burst, he said, “Let it burst.” On April 13, it looked as if it might.

His physician, Dr. Guy K. Dean, called in two consultants, and the three doctors concluded that unless surgery was attempted, the outlook was grim. The creator of the theory of relativity refused. On Friday, April 15, Einstein was persuaded to move his sick bed from Mercer Street to Princeton Hospital.

During the weekend, things began to look better. Einstein’s son, Hans Albert, flew in from California. His stepdaughter Margot was already in the hospital, being treated for a minor illness. On Sunday, it looked as if the aneurysm might heal temporarily. Dr. Dean took a look at his patient at 11 p.m. He was sleeping peacefully.

The nurse assigned to Einstein was named Alberta Roszel. After midnight, she noticed some troubled breathing in her patient. She went to get help. The bed was cranked up. Pale and emaciated, Albert Einstein was muttering something in German, a language Alberta Roszel did not understand. He took two deep breaths and died.

Princeton Hospital in 1955 was not the major facility it would become in later years. A major mobilization was needed to handle publicity on the occasion of the death of such a well-known international figure. Almost seven hours after the death, the hospital announced it and set up a news conference at 11:15. During the hours between the death and the release of details, the Einstein family, their friends, and the hospital officials worked in concert to deny the reporters then flooding to Princeton any scenes to witness, any physical evidence to describe to the millions who craved more than cold facts. Einstein had specifically asked that he not become the subject of a “personality cult.” He did not want 112 Mercer Street to become a museum. He did not want his remains available to admirers making pilgrimages. His family shared his zeal for privacy. By the time the news conference began, an autopsy had been performed. The hospital pathologist, Dr. Thomas S. Harvey, had presided. He worked alone, under the eyes of Dr. Otto Nathan, a friend and a colleague of the deceased who was the designated executor of the Einstein literary estate. For a period of time, Dr. Dean was also in the autopsy room. It was Dr. Dean who signed the death certificate. Official Cause: rupture of the arteriosclerotic. Birthplace: Ulm, Germany. Citizen of: U.S.A. Occupation: scientist.

Scanned image from the August 1978 issue.

Scanned image from the August 1978 issue.

If the assembled reporters hoped for any details of the autopsy, they were disappointed; they learned only the cause of Einstein’s death. The body was not available for viewing. It was taken to the Mather Funeral Home in Princeton, where it sat for an hour and a half, until it was driven to Ewing Crematory in Trenton. At four-thirty in the afternoon, the body was cremated. Later, Dr. Nathan took the ashes and dispersed them in a river, presumably the Delaware.

But part of the remains was spared. Einstein had requested his brain be removed for posthumous study, and his family bid it be done at the autopsy. It was placed in a jar. A New York Times reporter on April 20 wrote an article headlined “KEY SOUGHT IN EINSTEIN BRAIN.” It talked of a study to be performed on the brain and the possible implications. The study, said the story, “may shed light on one of nature’s greatest mysteries—the secret of genius. More details were to be released on how the study would be performed. Another press conference was scheduled for the following week.

Einstein had requested his brain be removed for posthumous study, and his family bid it be done at the autopsy.
It was placed in a jar. 

The Einstein family was upset by the article and told the doctors entrusted with the brain that there was to be no publicity whatsoever concerning the study. The press conference never took place. Einstein’s brain had gone into hiding.

* * *

“I want you to find Einstein’s brain.”

Of course I knew who Albert Einstein was. I knew, like most people, about the theory of relativity, but could provide little detail. Something about e equaling mc², and something about atomic energy, and something about how time and space differed depending on your point of view. I knew it changed the world, and I knew that although it was responsible for nuclear weapons, the theory itself was a step forward, and Einstein was recognized as a humanitarian as well as a genius. I didn’t know that his brain was still around.

Neither, really, did my editor. He had done some work on the subject of the brain and had wondered what had happened to this brain of brains, this organic masterpiece of gray matter and cerebral cortex. He had read the last pages of Ronald Clark’s Einstein: The Life and Times, where the author says of Einstein: “He had insisted his brain be used for research…” and then drops the subject. And my editor had heard all sorts of rumors. Einstein’s brain was lost. Einstein’s brain was examined and found to be normal. Einstein’s brain was examined and found to be extraordinary. Einstein’s brain was hidden in a vault, frozen for cloning. And so on.

So the editor had written to Clark, asking him what happened to the brain. The author of Einstein’s standard biography wrote back saying, “I’m afraid I don’t know the answer, but have a recollection that it was preserved somewhere.” He suggested contacting Otto Nathan. His one-paragraph letter confirmed that the brain had been removed before cremation, and stated that the pathologist in charge had been a Dr. Thomas Harvey. “As far as I know,” Nathan concluded, “he is no longer with the hospital.” The letter was a year old. Now my editor wanted to know where the brain was. And he wanted me to find it.

“Sure,” I said.

* * *

I had to wait a long time.

Then a voice came over the phone. “Mr. Seligman will be right with you,” it said. While someone in the hospital paged him, I read some more of a book explaining relativity. My reading habits had changed drastically. This was the third “layman’s” book on Einstein’s theories I had been through. In each book I did fine until the mathematical formulas, “easily handled by the average high school graduate,” began a relentless progression of incremental obliqueness. I would plod onward, and though I didn’t grasp the intricacies of relativity, I now at least misunderstood it clearly. I could see how Einstein convinced the scientific community that neither time nor space was absolute. According to my books, this applied chiefly to someone walking to the bathroom on a moving train while simultaneously comparing fixed points with a friend on a moving supersonic transport. Or, failing that, it would become obvious at speeds approaching the speed of light (the famous c), the velocity of some subatomic particles. It is only at these speeds that we can perceive that the universe is not as it seemed to Isaac Newton. It all sounds quite irrelevant until you consider that applications of the theory of relativity have given us everything from nuclear energy to laser beams and have helped explain many major astronomical discoveries in the past few decades. The brain I was looking for had changed our perception of the universe, and since Walter Seligman was a vice-president of the Princeton Medical Center, where the brain had been removed from the highly recognizable head of Albert Einstein, I hoped for a clue.

Finally, he reached a phone. “Yes, the operation took place here,” he conceded. “But there are no records.” He paused. “The only person who would know anything about it would be the pathologist who performed the operation. Doctor Thomas Harvey.

“Yes, the operation took place here,” he conceded.
“But there are no records.”

Where would Dr. Harvey be found?

“I’m afraid I don’t know. He left here years ago.”

Would your personnel department have any records?

“No. He moved several times since, I’ve heard. He’s out of the state, I’m sure.”

What about records of the autopsy itself? Exact time? Who worked there with Harvey? Which operating room? Anyone who might know if…

“No. He was the only one working on it and he took all records with him. We have nothing on file here. All this, of course, was before my time.”

* * *

It was before many of our times—it was twenty-three years ago. The world was gloomy, worried about a cold war that threatened to heat into a nuclear disaster. No one was more concerned than Albert Einstein. All his life he had tried to nudge mankind toward a pacifist ideal. His efforts were inconstant because his pacifism was always subordinated to his physics; he knew it was by his mental labors that he could make his greatest contributions, even as his heart leaked blood and a blister on his aorta verged on a fatal rupture. During his short final stay in Princeton Hospital, he had requested pencil and paper to continue his calculations. With these he could work—“My brain is my laboratory,” he once said.

And the whereabouts of his brain? God knows where. I had spent hours of library work and found items of negative value. The brain, it seemed, had been sectioned soon after his death (this I learned from the article that led Einstein’s family to impose secrecy on the project), and would never be able to regain its original form. Pieces had still been under study as late as 1963 (this from a minor biography of Einstein). And, according to all available indices of scientific research, nothing had been published concerning studies of Einstein’s brain. Nothing.

Reading about Einstein, and about the workings of the human brain, I began thinking about the subject more than was reasonable. I would create uneasy silences in editorial lunches by remarking how the timing of the Michelson-Morley experiments paved the way for Einstein’s work on relativity. I carried on barroom seminars on the relation between brain size and human intelligence (little—scientists have found that a moron’s brain could be larger than a genius’s). I learned that current theories postulate that intelligence is probably a function of the speed with which electrical impulses jump through the synapses between the billions of cells in the brain, and that these impulses are triggered by enzymes in a process still not totally understood. I had no idea how quickly impulses had jumped through the gray matter of Albert Einstein. I wanted to know. Above all, I wanted my eyes to allow light to trigger off impulses in my optic nerve that would excite sensations in my own brain, and that through some magical process I hope we will never understand, these sensations would thrill me and edify me, seeing the brain that all brains aspire to.

Scanned image from the August 1978 issue.

Scanned image from the August 1978 issue.

My growing obsession distracted me. One night I drove to a friend’s house in Princeton. The hour was late and I was two drinks silly. I missed a turn off Hodge Road, and somewhere along the line made a left thinking it the right direction. It wasn’t, so I made a U-turn. I felt an itchy discomfort as I veered toward town; checking a road sign I saw I was traveling on Mercer Street. In half a block, I saw it, a common white frame house, no different than any other of the common single houses on Mercer Street. Lights were on. I could see plants in the window. Einstein had lived here.

* * *

“You’re looking for Einstein’s brain?” said a co-worker. “I have a friend who saw a picture of it.”

What?

“She’s a medical student in California. Her teacher had slides of it. Here’s her number.”

I called. The woman, it seemed, had not seen the slide, but had once been invited to by her instructor, a Dr. Moore. Supposedly he had in his possession slides that pictured Einstein’s brain. She wasn’t sure how he got them. She gave me his number.

Dr. Moore was willing to talk.

“I worked on the study of the brain,” he said. “In Chicago. Sets of the section were sent to various experts for analysis. The man I was working for, Dr. Sidney Schulman, specialized in the thalamus, and we got portions of Einstein’s thalamus, sectioned and stained for microscopic study.”

The thalamus is a part of the brain which transmits impulses to the cerebral cortex.

“As far as the thalamus is concerned,” said Dr. Moore, “Einstein’s brain cells were like anyone else’s at that age. If you showed the slides blind to someone, he would say that they came from any old man. Even so, I took Kodachromes of a couple slides to show to my students.”

I wondered if Dr. Moore knew where the brain section came from and whether he knew of parts of the brain that might still be around.

“I’m not sure. I think the stuff we got was from some pathologist from Princeton.”

* * *

Dr. Sidney Schulman seemed surprised that someone was calling him about Einstein’s brain at this late date, and he told me to wait while he got his files. I hoped he wouldn’t change his mind before he got back to the phone.

“I couldn’t find the file,” he said after a nearly interminable hiatus. “All it really would have for you is the name of the pathologist who was doing the study. He was the man who performed the autopsy of Einstein.”

A Dr. Thomas Harvey?

That’s the name. He came to me soon after Einstein’s death. He had heard about my interest in the thalamus and had sent me some microscopic slides. I did keep a few for my own use.”

What came of the studies?

“Well, Dr. Harvey was interested in finding out if the brain varied from the norm. Using the methods then available I found no variation. But the problem was that methods used today weren’t available back then. And even if they were, they couldn’t have been used in this case.

“You see, today studies like these are done with electron microscopes. But they can only be used with samples fixed directly after removal from a live body. In something like Einstein’s case, the delay between death and fixation (the use of a substance like formaldehyde) causes post-mortem changes. Partially because of this, there are no established standards of normality in cells like these.

“Dr. Harvey wanted me to do a more intensive study, to count the cells and cell types, but I didn’t think it would be worthwhile. I suggested another expert, a Dr. Kuhlenbeck of Philadelphia. I don’t know whether he took my advice.”

Have you heard anything from Doctor Harvey? Do you know where he is?

“No, I haven’t heard from him since he took back the samples. And I have never seen anything published. Do you know where to reach him?”

* * *

No, I didn’t know where to reach him. But I had one last idea. Since my man was a doctor, he must be a member of the American Medical Association. Surely they keep track of their members.

The AMA is headquartered in Chicago. They told me that they don’t give out members’ whereabouts over the phone. But I’m a reporter on a deadline, I insisted. They transferred me to several people before someone, apparently exasperated enough to bend a regulation, asked me the name of the person I sought.

I told her. A silence. Did I hear the rustling of pages while I waited?

“What’s the middle initial? And how old would he be?” the woman asked.

“S,” I said. “And he’d be up in years by now.”

“Well, there’s a Thomas S. Harvey, born 1912, in Wichita, Kansas.”

Wichita? So be it. But please, please, give me the number.

“We don’t have a number,” she said. “How about an address?”

Fine. As I wrote it down, I wondered—was this the address of Albert Einstein’s brain?

* * *

Since Dr. Harvey was the obvious key to my search, I was nervous before calling him. If he hung up on me, I would never see the brain. On the other hand, he might be very nice. We might have a pleasant conversation and he might tell me that he did study the brain, found nothing, and tossed the pieces into a Jiffy Bag. Or, just as bad, the man I called might not be the Dr. Harvey I sought. In the twenty-three years since taking out Albert Einstein’s brain, Dr. Thomas S. Harvey might well have died and taken with him whatever secrets Einstein’s brain held.

There was a tense pause when I asked the man who came to the phone whether he was the same Dr. Harvey who had worked at Princeton Hospital in the mid-1950s. Almost as if he had been considering a denial, he slowly said yes. I told him I was interested in Einstein’s brain and I was willing to visit him to talk about it. I didn’t mention the obsessive character my search had begun to take on.

He told me that there had been an agreement not to talk to anyone about the study of the brain. He was sorry, but…

He told me that there had been an agreement not to
talk to anyone about the study of the brain.

I was more than sorry. I persisted, telling him about the impeccable reputation of my publication, and how the letter from Dr. Nathan giving Harvey’s name (though not where to find him) was an implicit go-ahead from the Einstein estate. The doctor finally agreed to see me, on the condition that he not be bound to tell me any scientific information that might yet be published.

Throughout the conversation, Dr. Harvey had sounded very uncomfortable. I felt as if the wrong question would lead him to dismiss any idea of dealing with me. So I hadn’t asked him some obvious questions. Like why nothing had been published. Like why the subject was still so touchy. Like whether he still had any of the brain in his possession.

These questions I would ask in Wichita.

* * *

As far as I can ascertain, Albert Einstein never visited Wichita during his three-quarters century of life. I quickly saw why. Kansas is about as appealing as a day-old wheat pancake. The Kansas headquarters for my search was the Wichita Plaza Holiday Inn, at twenty-six stories the tallest building in the state.

The twenty-fifth story housed the Penthouse Club. The view at midnight is not breathtaking—many streetlights illuminating vacant sidewalks. I was visiting the Penthouse Club as a new member—signing up was the requirement for buying a drink in Kansas, a “dry” state. Albert Einstein would not have appreciated that. He enjoyed a good glass of wine. When his doctors eventually forbade him his drink, he would sniff at a full glass and remark, in a tone of mock tragedy, that the sniff was the extent of the pleasures the medical establishment allowed him. They probably would have made him join the Penthouse Club to sniff wine in Wichita.

My wakeup call came at seven, two hours before my appointment with Dr. Harvey. It was a miserable morning, blackened by rainclouds that looked intent on dropping great volumes of water on Wichita. The torrent began about the time I started looking for a taxi to the residential area of town where Dr. Harvey worked as a medical supervisor in a bio-testing lab. In no time, the streets were pocked with puddles the size of bomb craters. The cabdriver thought nothing of nosing the taxi into one of these instant lakes. All I was concerned about was making my appointment. Especially if it meant finding Einstein’s brain.

Only a few minutes late, I was met by Dr. Harvey. To get to his corner office, he ushered me through a maze of noisy computers and silent medical technicians working on blood and urine samples. He seemed a gentle man. His hair was gray, but there was spunk in his blue eyes. He wore a pastel shirt and patterned tie. In his shirt pocket was the kind of pen capable of writing three different colors. He smiled as we shook hands. He seemed somewhat embarrassed at the situation.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) in his Princeton study. Courtesy of Bettman Archive / scanned image from August 1978 issue

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) in his Princeton study. Courtesy of Bettman Archive / scanned image from August 1978 issue

Some small talk disposed of, we got down to the subject I was yearning to discuss— Albert Einstein.

Dr. Harvey had met Einstein several times. He had been to Einstein’s house to take samples for lab test. “He was very informal and cordial,” Dr. Harvey recalled. “A very kind sort of man.”

Then came Einstein’s fatal illness. It changed the life of Thomas Harvey, who had come to Princeton by way of Yale Medical School, Philadelphia General Hospital, and Pepper Laboratories. By virtue of his job as hospital pathologist, it was up to him to conduct the autopsy on Einstein and to take the brain out. And somehow it fell to him to conduct the study on the exceptional brain.

It made sense to appoint a regular hospital pathologist to make sure the task of studying the brain would be done properly—Harvey apparently was eager to take on a large project that could be, as he put it, “one of my major professional contributions.” Harvey confirmed that it was luck that led him to conduct the study. “By being there, I felt that I had a responsibility to do an adequate and complete examination,” he said in a friendly but nervous tone. He was still talking as if he expected some buzzer to ring and a voice from the heavens boom down and say, “That’s quite enough.” But as he told the story of Einstein’s brain, his voice took on confidence. At times, it took on a tone of awe.

* * *

What the reporters weren’t told in 1955 was that Dr. Harvey was enlisting some brain experts to assist him in studying the most significant chunk of “gross material,” as Harvey put it, ever to become available to medical science. Dr. Harvey himself had a special interest in neuropathology (the study of disorders of the nervous system), but he realized that he needed specialists to help him in his marathon task of searching for the clues to genius. One of the initial specialists he contacted was Dr. Harry Zimmerman in New York, and eventually he lined up Percival Bailey of Chicago and Hartwig Kuhlenbeck of Philadelphia. There were others, but Dr. Harvey was reluctant to give their names.

The first step in the process was an exacting measurement and complete photographing of the whole brain. This was done at Princeton Hospital, which had agreed to partially fund the study. From these measurements, there was apparently no difference between Einstein’s brain and a “normal” one. Certainly it was no bigger, and at two and sixty-four hundredths pounds, it was no heavier. This was no surprise; the real work would take place in microscopic studies of the dissected brain.

So sometime in the early fall of 1955, Dr. Harvey packed up on the brain of Albert Einstein, made sure it was well cushioned in its formaldehyde-filled jar, and drove—very, very carefully—from Princeton to Philadelphia, where the brain would be sectioned in a laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania.

“They had a big lab there,” Dr. Harvey recalled. “They had equipment for sectioning whole brains, including a microtome used only for brain work. Those particular microtomes are very scarce, and special technicians are needed to operate them. Dr. Erich, who ran the laboratory, had such a technician, and though it took six months to do, we did a beautiful job of sectioning the brain.”

From there, the sections of the brain, some in small chunks preserved in celloidin (a gelatinous material), some on microscopic slides, went off to various parts of the country to be studied by specialists. “I usually delivered the pieces myself,” said Harvey. “It could have been handled by mail, I guess, but I wanted to meet these men.”

“In order to do a study like this,” said Dr. Harvey, “you have to have seen enough of the normal brain to have a pretty good idea what would be extraordinary. Unfortunately, not a lot of brains have been studied completely. Less than a dozen. Of course, when it comes to genius…not even that many. It really is a mammoth task. There’s a tremendous number of cells in the brain. You don’t examine every one of them in detail, but you look at an awful lot of sections. Almost all the brain now is in sections. There’s a little left as brain tissue, but very little.”

“I usually delivered the pieces myself,” said Harvey.
“It could have been handled by mail, I guess,
but I wanted to meet these men.”

How little, I wondered to myself. And where was it? All this history had been fascinating, but I wanted to view the damn thing. Of course, you couldn’t just bust in on a guy and demand to see a brain. Somehow I had to steer things toward the “gross material” itself. I asked Dr. Harvey if it might be possible to see…a slide, perhaps.

“I don’t really have any slides here in this office,”he said. “So I can’t do it here.”

Where are the slides? At your home?

“No, they’re not there…” He was shifting uncomfortably in his chair. “I really don’t think it’ll be of much help to you to see one of the slides. I can show you a slide of something else, to show you what they’re like…as I say, I don’t have any of the brain here.”

My heart sank. “Is any of it in Wichita?” I asked.

“Um, yes. But not in the office here. Aren’t you familiar with microscopic slides?”

“Yes, but—”

“Well, I don’t want to say any more about it,” he said with an air of finality.

* * *

Perhaps I could have accepted not seeing the brain if I knew that it didn’t exist, or that it existed only in an unreachable place—like the ocean bottom. But to leave Wichita knowing that there might well be some brain to see? Unthinkable. Dr. Harvey noted my obvious dismay, and almost as a consolidation asked me if I had any more questions about the study.

Well, all right. Why had things been taking so long?

“We had no urgency to publish. And the actual examination didn’t take this long, of course. Though there is some work still to be done. You see, my career since I did the autopsy has been sort of interrupted. I left Princeton Hospital in 1960 and moved to Freehold. And for the past few years, I’ve been here in Wichita. I don’t work on it as much as I used to. But we’re getting closer to publication. I’d say we’re perhaps a year away.”

Dr. Harvey thought a bit before answering. “So far it’s fallen within normal limits for a man his age. There are changes that occur within the brain with age. And his brain showed these. No more so than the average man. The anatomical variations,” he said, “are within the normal limits.”

Another uneasy silence followed. Dr. Harvey shifted in his seat. He seemed to have something he wanted to say, but was agonizing whether to voice it or not.

“Do you have a photograph of it here?” I blurted out.

“No, I don’t,” he said. “I don’t have any material here.” Then he paused. A shy grin came over his face. “I do have a little bit of the gross here,” he said, almost apologetically.

Pardon?

“Gross material. Unsectioned. But that’s all.”

Here? In this office we’re sitting in?

I looked around. Dr. Harvey was sitting across from me, behind a large desk piled with papers and magazines. On one side of the room was a bookshelf brimming with books and journals; on the other, a small clutter of cardboard boxes and a cooler one might take on a fishing trip. Certainly no temperature-controlled vaults such as I imagined would hold such a scientific treasure.

Without another word, Dr. Harvey rose from his seat and walked around the desk, crossing in front of me to get to the corner of the room. He bent down over the clutter on the floor, stopping at the red plastic cooler. He picked it up and put it on a chair next to me. It didn’t fit between the arms of the chair. Moving slowly, he placed it on the floor.

Einstein’s brain in a beer cooler?

No. He turned away from the cooler, going back to the corner. Of the two cardboard boxes stacked there, he picked up the top one and moved it to the side. Then he bent down over the bottom box, which had a logo reading COSTA CIDER on the side. There was no top to the box, and it looked filled with crumpled newspapers. Harvey, still wearing a sheepish grin, thrust his hand into the newspapers and emerged with a large mason jar. Floating inside the jar, in a clear liquid solution, were several pieces of matter. A conch shell-shaped sized chunk of grayish, lined substance, the apparent consistency of sponge. And in a separate pouch, a mass of pinkish-white strings resembling bloated dental floss. All the material was recognizably brain matter.

Dr. Harvey pointed out that the conch-shaped mass was Einstein’s cerebellum, the gray blob a chunk of cerebral cortex, and the stringy stuff a group of aortic vessels.

Harvey, still wearing a sheepish grin, thrust his hand into the newspapers and emerged with a large mason jar.

“It’s all in sections, except for this,” he said. I had risen up to look into the jar, but now I was sunk in my chair, speechless. My eyes were fixed upon the jar as I tried to comprehend that these pieces of gunk bobbing up and down had caused a revolution in physics and quite possibly changed the course of civilization. There it was! Before I could regain my wits, Dr. Harvey had reached back into the box for another jar. This one was larger, and since it was not a mason jar, the top had been fixed in place by yellowed masking tape. Inside it were dozens of rectangular translucent blocks, the size of Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews, each with a little sticker reading CEREBRAL CORTEX and bearing a number. Encased in every block was a shriveled blob of gray matter.

Dr. Harvey explained the fixative process, and told me what part of the brain the chunks were from. Not a word penetrated my own gray cells. I made no objection as he placed the jars back in the newspaper-filled cider box and moved the cooler back to its original position. Dr. Harvey didn’t know it, but I had accomplished my mission. I was too stunned, though, for self-congratulation. We made some more perfunctory conversation, he said he was sorry he couldn’t show me his laboratory or give me scientific data, and he offered to write to Dr. Nathan of Einstein’s estate to see if I could be authorized to receive some more information. I nodded, but my heart was not in it. Having seen the object of my search, the scientific details seemed superfluous.

* * *

A few weeks later, writing this, the scientific details do not seem so superfluous. It would be nice to know all the scientists who worked with Dr. Harvey. It would be nice to know the exact nature of the tests performed on the brain. It would be nice to know if there were any technical qualifiers to Dr. Harvey’s generalization that, as of now, it looks as if Einstein’s brain is essentially no different than that of a nongenius. But for that, we’ll have to wait the year or so that Dr. Harvey said remains between now and the publication of the study that’s been twenty-three years in the making. When Dr. Harvey contacted Otto Nathan about giving me the scientific information, Nathan apparently became upset that Harvey had talked to me at all—I had penetrated a secret that the Einstein trust wished preserved.

All along, I had feared that if I ever did get to see Einstein’s brain, the experience would be a terrific letdown. I had suspected that the inevitable lifelessness of the material would make looking at the brain matter as interesting as viewing a dead jellyfish. My fears were unjustified. For a moment, with the brain before me, I had been granted a rare peek into an organic crystal ball. Swirling in formaldehyde was the power of the smashed atom, the mystery of the universe’s black holes, and the utter miracle of human achievement.

I could see why the efforts of Einstein before his death, and of his family and estate afterwards, had been directed toward keeping the brain out of the limelight. It was powerful, capable of refocusing attention on the mystical aspects of Einstein that his family always tried to understate. But as much as a family has a right to privacy, I think a case can be made for discarding the shroud that surrounds this “gross material.” Whether you see it or merely contemplate it, there is something very awesome in the post-mortem remains of Albert Einstein’s brain. It is something of ourselves at our best, or something of what we humans can be—using our own awesome powers to work out the relation between ourselves and our surroundings.

The fact that twenty-three years of study indicate that Einstein’s brain is physiologically no different from yours or mine seems to bear this out. “God does not play dice with the Universe,” Albert Einstein liked to say, and he spent the bulk of his life trying to prove it. I think that he would be happy to find that, with no better a roll than most of us, he managed to beat the house. What we do with our own dice rolls is up to us, and not chance. There are no better lessons to extract from Albert Einstein’s brain.

Editor’s note: Dr. Harvey’s study on Einstein’s brain was published in 1985. He later donated pieces to the pathology department at University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro. A portion is on view at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. 

*

“The mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.”
– Albert Einstein

 

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