Einstein Brain Stolen and Is Now an App


Albert Einstein suffered an abdominal aortic aneurysm on April 17, 1955. He was taken to Princeton’s University Medical Center for treatment but Einstein refused to have surgery. He did not want to prolong his life artificially and so died early the next morning on April 18, 1955. Einstein was 76 years old. After his death, a pathologist by the name of Dr. Thomas Harvey performed an autopsy and removed Einstein’s brain. Instead of replacing the brain back within the skull for the cremation, Harvey instead placed the brain in a jar of formaldehyde. Under what appears to be questionable circumstances, Dr. Harvey kept the brain for further study. It is the belief of many that Harvey had stolen the brain of Albert Einstein and new technology today has turned that brain into an iPad app.

Apparently, Dr. Harvey did not have permission to remove the brain from Einstein’s body. News accounts vary and it is not clear whether Harvey had permission to perform the autopsy or had managed to obtain retroactive permission from Einstein’s son to keep the brain for scientific study. What is known is that Dr. Harvey eventually lost his job because he refused to allow other scientists and researchers access to the specimen. Even with the loss of his job, Harvey did not relinquish the brain to Princeton, instead keeping it either in his home or at another hospital, again depending on the news sources reporting.

Harvey spent the next 40 years studying and researching the brain of Albert Einstein, always indicating that he was close to a number of conclusions. A writer, Michael Paterniti, researched the events of Einstein’s death, the autopsy, and what eventually became of the brain. It turns out that Einstein’s brain was stolen from Princeton, sliced and sent to various researchers (sometimes in mayonnaise jars), took a trip from New Jersey to Berkeley, California in a Tupperware container which traveled in the back of a rented Buick Skylark, and then was eventually returned to the scene of the crime at Princeton before being made into what is now an app.

In the 1980’s a scientist from the University of California, Marian Diamond, asked for samples from four areas of the brain. After waiting three years she finally received the requested samples through the mail, the chunks of brain enclosed within a mayonnaise jar. Diamond was interested in glial cells known as astrocytes. After performing her research, the scientist found that one area of Einstein’s brain had an unusual neuron to glial cell ratio. While her research generated reactions from the media, scientists were not sure what to make of her findings. As it was, it was simply a peculiar finding that gave researchers pause.

Another discovery was made in 1990 by Stephen J. Smith, a researcher at Stanford University. Smith built on the previous findings from Diamond because he suspected that the astrocytes had the ability to communicate. He believed that the astrocytes communicated only with chemical signals as opposed to the previously recognized combination of electrical charges and chemical signals. The possibility that the chemical signals by themselves would be missed if they were not in conjunction with the electrical charges was high. An experiment was conducted where astrocytes in a culture dish were viewed under a microscope as a bit of glutamate neurotransmitter was dropped into the dish. Glutamate is a chemical messenger which neurons often use. What happened next was that the astrocytes not only sensed the glutamate but spread the chemical message out from the original point of contact.

EinsteinThe findings created new ideas on the ways that glial cells might function and how the astrocytes could be involved in different cognitive processes. Diamond’s findings on the additional glial cells found in Einstein’s brain now began to make sense to researchers. Albert Einstein’s brain, whether by permission or not, was removed for study and eventually segmented into approximately 170 parts and then sectioned further into hundreds of sections for microscopic study. After the refusal of the Tupperwared brain from the cross-country trip to Einstein’s granddaughter in California, the brain returned to New Jersey and was donated by Harvey’s estate in 2010 to the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

The National Museum of Health and Medicine Chicago (NMHMC) acquired funding in 2012 to digitize the collection. The possibly stolen Einstein brain is in the process of being digitized and is now an iPad app available not only to neuroscientists, researchers, and educators, but to the general public as well. The app permits users to examine the neuroanatomy of Albert Einstein just as if they were viewing the slides through a microscope.

By Dee Mueller


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