Current Issue: Fall 2011
What Ever Happened to Einstein's Brain?
The 20th century's most famous brain had an unusual post-mortem journey. At Penn, at least, it was treated right.
By Marshall A. Ledger
|The histology laboratory in Penn's Graduate School of Medicine, circa 1954
Early in 1933, the trustees of the University of Pennsylvania invited Albert Einstein to attend graduation ceremonies that year and receive an honorary degree. The world-famous physicist could not come, the invitation was never extended again, and there seems to be no public record that he ever did make it to Penn's campus.
After his death in Princeton, N.J., in 1955, however, his brain was brought to Penn Medicine labs for sectioning and slicing, in preparation for research. At the time, the tissue processing was a hush-hush procedure, but now it is generally acknowledged. But until now, few details had come forth.
Inherent interest – and speculation
There is likely to be great curiosity, especially among the public, in the study of a genius's brain, yet Einstein's brain shouldn't have survived him. He explicitly directed that his body be cremated, and so it was, with the exception of his brain and his eyes.
Thomas S. Harvey, M.D., the Princeton Hospital pathologist who conducted the autopsy, removed those organs, certainly without prior approval to do so. Whether he received permission during the operation (from the executor of Einstein's estate, who was present) or after the fact has been a matter of longstanding debate.
The eyes went to his ophthalmologist, Henry Abrams, M.D., G.M. '41, and reportedly are still locked away. (Abrams, who taught at Penn Medicine for 15 years, died in 2009.)
The brain stayed with Harvey for nearly 45 years. He took it home with him, even though not returning it to Princeton Hospital cost him his job there. He carried it to the Midwest, where for two decades the world seemed to forget about him. And he took it with him when he moved back to New Jersey in the 1990s.
In 1997, Harvey traveled to the West Coast by auto, and the sectioned organ made the trip in Tupperware containers inside a duffel bag in the trunk. Harvey seemed to be an improper caretaker, to say the least, and the brain took on the mystique of an urban legend.
Not a caper
This past spring, two former Penn employees decided that they had had enough. In the 1950s, they worked in the Graduate School of Medicine, then part of Penn's School of Medicine. Edna Rogers Hughes was secretary to William E. Ehrich, M.D., the chair of pathology (a department that included histology and neuroanatomy), and Monica Carr Fox was a lab technician there. The women knew Harvey and had small roles to play in the care of the brain, and what they read about the pathologist did not ring true to them.
Hughes and Fox were especially offended by the 2000 book Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain, by the journalist Michael Paterniti. He had befriended Harvey and indulged his impulsive desire to take the brain to the West Coast. The former pathologist seemed to have a vague idea of discussing research possibilities with neuroscientists and showing the brain, perhaps even leaving part of it as a gift, to Evelyn Einstein, the scientist's granddaughter, who lived near San Francisco. (She died this past April.)
The trip took place in 1997. In Paterniti's narrative, Harvey, then 84, came across as a genial, shambling eccentric; the writer, as an eager, wonderstruck but clueless, 30-something partner on a "buddy" adventure; and the pieces of brain, as the ludicrous link between them.
Hughes and Fox discussed their disagreements with Paterniti's portrayal of Harvey and the implication in the book's title that the brain was whole rather than much diminished after being dissected and distributed to researchers over the years. (In the book, Paterniti clearly explains that the brain was "in parts," but the mere phrase Einstein's brain arouses particular awe as the physical home of his genius.)
After another former colleague, Barbara Johansen Smith, a technician in the department, corroborated their recollections, Hughes this spring took an unusual step: She e-mailed Penn Medicine's administration, offering their first-hand account – the first full disclosure of the brain's stay at Penn.
I met with Fox and Hughes in Hughes's home in suburban Philadelphia. As it turned out, Hughes knew Harvey even before he arrived with the brain in 1955. They had both arrived at the pathology department in 1949, she as Ehrich's secretary and he as an instructor. Harvey went on to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania as a medical associate in clinical pathology from 1950 through 1956; in 1952, he became director of the pathology lab at Princeton Hospital, while apparently retaining his HUP affiliation four more years.
The women recalled Harvey's professionalism and the proper care that Einstein's brain received. "Dr. Harvey was a man worthy of respect, and Paterniti introduces him other than that," said Fox. "And that makes me unhappy."
"Dr. Ehrich was a proper German gentleman," Hughes added. "Nothing questionable would have ever happened in a lab that he was in charge of."
Sectioning the brain at Penn
|Einstein's sectioned brain in a glass specimen jar. At the upper left, the letters "GSMUP" (Gradaute School of the University of Pennsylvania) are visible.
Hughes and Fox described the vital role played by Marta Keller, a histology technician who probably was the reason that Harvey brought Einstein's brain to Penn for sectioning. Hughes must have known her from the pathology lab, and they had another link: She formerly worked at Montefiore Hospital in New York, for the noted neuropathologist Harry Zimmerman, M.D.; in the 1930s, he had taught at Yale University's School of Medicine, where he was a mentor for Harvey.
Hughes, Fox, and Smith all recalled Keller as exceptionally able. Smith, whom I reached by phone later, reported to Keller, who also trained her in the lab. "She was a wonderful, patient teacher," said Smith. "I didn't realize how unusual she was until later years, but she was one of only 11 technicians in the United States who could use a Sartorius microtome," the state-of-the-art brain slicer of the mid-1950s.
The machine was huge, the size of a kitchen table, with a 12-inch blade. Using it "required great skill," Fox said. "The brain was mounted in the center in a celloidin block. It had to be properly embedded, and then the tech needed great skill to obtain a full brain section without shattering the specimen."
Keller produced 240 blocks and, from each, cut microscope slides. (To understand exactly what she did, I later contacted Frederick E. Lepore, M.D., a neurologist at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. He reviewed the research on Einstein's brain and interviewed Harvey for Cerebrum, the Dana Foundation publication, in 2001. "The slides were labeled to indicate their block of origin," he pointed out. "Harvey sketched a master map showing the anatomical place of origin of the numbered blocks.")
Most of the accounts that mention Penn's work on the brain credit Keller's efforts. Paterniti noted that "she must have been a highly competent technician, for some of those experts who've ultimately come by slides of Einstein's brain still praise her work."
Hughes and Fox described the schedule: After Harvey got Keller started, he traveled from Princeton on Fridays once or twice a month and, under a microscope, examined the slides that Keller had prepared. When he finished, he took the whole brain out of the jar and told Keller the part he would like to study next. Over the following week or two, she did the slicing, staining, and mounting, and the slides would be ready for Harvey on his next visit. This routine lasted about eight months.
Fox worked alongside Keller as she put litmus paper between the sections ("because they were so thin," Fox pointed out). Hughes recalled looking at the samples under a microscope to make sure that the staining was correct, so that it would highlight the cells that Harvey wanted to see.
The work took place in the basement of the Anatomy-Chemistry Building, where the pathology lab was located. Go down the hallway, turn left and you'd find a vestibule, and at the back of that small space was a closet. There the famous organ was stored, along with brains used to teach the Graduate School of Medicine students. "Einstein's brain never got to students," Hughes said. "It was kept there because that was the only place we had." As she added: "It was locked."
Hughes saw the brain regularly. Ehrich, the department chair, lectured on Saturdays, and she prepared his teaching materials: "I'd go in on a Saturday, get a cart, go to the closet, put six brains on it, put rubber gloves on, wash the brains off, put them on a metal plate, a pie plate, and give them out. The doctor-students would dissect them while Dr. Ehrich was speaking."
But information about the brain's presence was restricted to those who needed to know. According to Hughes, "We were told not to mention to anybody that we had the brain in our lab, because they were actually afraid that it would be stolen."
Fox told her husband. "I told my mother, and she didn't care," Hughes replied.
Eventually, the whole brain was sectioned, "as far as we know," Lepore told me in our later e-mail exchange. So it did leave Penn "in parts." That phrase has its own visceral impact, but Harvey in fact had accurate dissections, responsibly done in a scientific and confidential manner by one of the best technicians of the day.
After Harvey left Penn with his blocks and slides, Hughes said, "Dr. Ehrich wanted to have a plaque put up, stating the location at Penn where this work was performed." Whether he never got around to making an official request or whether his request was turned down is not known.
Research results so far
Marta Keller wrote down her observations of the brain only after Edna Hughes posed some questions to her in a letter in 2000. Keller, who died at 96 two years later, remembered Einstein's organ as "a perfectly healthy, normal adult brain." Asked about its convolutions – as if the fissures might have patterns relating to intelligence or creativity – Keller said they were typical.
Hughes also asked her about "any unusual conclusions reached, giving the reason for Einstein's genius?" "None as far as I know," Keller wrote.
These findings concur with most research on Einstein's brain from the start. For instance, its weight was normal (the relationship of brain weight or size and mental powers is an continuing question). In addition to preparing work for Harvey, Keller prepared slides for several clinical scientists around the country to whom Harvey sent them. Harry Zimmerman, his former mentor, received a set and noted that he did not expect to "find the cells that made him a genius."
According to Lepore, the other slide recipients apparently had nothing to report. Harvey's own examination found "plaques and neurofibrillary tangles" associated with Alzheimer's disease but "within normal limits for a man his age"; he apparently did not publish this result.
Later studies, done with specimens from Einstein's brain that Harvey provided to select scientists over the years, have shown that a "neural basis of intellect" still eludes us, Lepore concluded. But, he added, neuroscience is a young field and may yet produce interesting links between the organ and intellectual creativity.
If that happens, he suggested, Einstein's brain may yet make a contribution. Harvey died in 2007, but nine years earlier he gave the remaining parts of the organ – some 170 of the original 240 celloidin blocks – to the Princeton Medical Center. Parts also are held at a brain bank assembled by the neuroscientist Sandra F. Witelson, Ph.D., at McMaster University; and, according to Lepore, at an institution that has requested anonymity.
Based on what he has seen, Lepore credited Harvey for the "meticulous and systematic preservation of Einstein's brain."
Which is exactly the conclusion that Penn's former employees reached. "Dr. Harvey might have really managed to protect that tissue so that farther down the road, further studies could be made," said Fox. "He may end up being the hero."
At press time, Penn Medicine has learned that Lucy Rorke-Adams, M.D., has donated 46 slides containing slices of Einstein's brain to the Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Rorke-Adams, a neuropathologist at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and a clinical professor at the Perelman School of Medicine, received the slides in the mid-1970s.