The epic of Albert Einstein’s brain is a macabre and yet captivating tribute to the cultural impact of “the father of modern physics”.
The story began in 1955, seven hours after Einstein’s death. The attending pathologist who was scheduled to perform the autopsy, Thomas Stoltz Harvey, looking over the body of the embodiment of genius in the 20th century, decided, it is said, that it would be a greater gift to posterity if he took the brain without the family’s permission. While he was at it, he also gave Einstein’s eyes to the physicists optometrist.
Certain that the brain would provide endless opportunities for scientists to look into the stuff of brilliance, Harvey eventually lost almost everything in his efforts to keep it in his possession: his job, his marriage, his house. Striped of these potentially stabilizing factors, he began traveling around America with the brain in the back of his car trying to find people who would appreciate his “gift to science”.
This fact was not widely known until 1978 when a journalist “broke” the story and interviewed the now aged pathologist.
Today a part of Einstein’s brain is in Ontario, most of it was returned to Princeton, but Harvey sent samples to over a dozen different specialists during the time when he was its keeper.
While we don’t often admit it to ourselves, the contemporary fetishization of knowledge has allowed the organ of the intellect to take on an uncanny quality, at once grotesque, and yet captivating. The greater we value the intellect of the person, an associate that intangible quality with the meaty substance of the brain, the grater power the messy physicality of their brain takes on in our imagination. Harvey’s seemingly irrational actions can be seen in this light to be an extreme manifestation of the cult of scientific genius that evolved around Einstein and his accomplishments, and can not be separated from the same impulse that has motivated generations of Catholics to preserve the relics of their own saints.
Not seen in these saintly terms, Harvey died in 2007, and his brain, to the best of my knowledge, was laid to rest with him.
For More Information:
Paterniti, Michael. 2001. Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America With Einstein’s Brain. Dial Press Trade Paperback.
Carolyn Abraham, Possessing Genius: The Bizarre Odyssey of Einstein’s Brain.
(For another scientific relic, see Galileo’s finger: http://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/galileo/finger.html)