Einstein’s death 60 years ago was just the start of a strange journey for the most prized part of his anatomy, his brain. Stored in jars and on slides, it is still inspiring awe and scholarly research.
At 01:15 in the morning of 18 April 1955, Albert Einstein – theoretical physicist, peace campaigner and undisputed genius – mumbled a few words in German, took two breaths, and died. The nurse on duty at Princeton Hospital did not speak German and the meaning of Einstein’s final words was lost forever. Einstein’s cremation took place later that day in Trenton, New Jersey, but the following day his son, Hans Albert, learned that the body in the coffin had not been intact. A front-page article in the New York Times reported that “the brain that worked out the theory of relativity and made possible the development of nuclear fission” had been removed “for scientific study”.
The pathologist who conducted the autopsy, Dr Thomas Harvey, had gone further than simply identifying the cause of death – a burst aorta. He had sawed open Einstein’s cranium and removed its celebrated contents.
“He had some big professional hopes pinned on that brain,” says Carolyn Abraham, who met Harvey while researching her book Possessing Genius: The Bizarre Odyssey of Einstein’s Brain. “I think he had hoped to make a name for himself in medicine in a way that he had been unable to do. And then he comes to work one morning and finds Albert Einstein on his autopsy table.”
Hans Albert was furious. His father had been a modest man who had been cremated without ceremony, and had asked for his ashes be scattered in secret to prevent the site becoming a place of pilgrimage.
But Einstein had also, at some point, given people to believe he was happy for scientists to use his body for research. Harvey convinced Hans Albert to grant permission for a study of Einstein’s brain in the hope it would, as the New York Times put it later, “shed light on one of nature’s greatest mysteries – the secret of genius”.
Harvey, controversially, took possession of the brain. “Whether he took it for himself, or took it for science – it was hard for people to know which, and that’s what put him in the crosshairs for a lot of people,” says the journalist Michael Paterniti, who met Harvey near the end of his life. Harvey was not a neurologist, but he promised to marshal the country’s greatest specialists to study the brain, and to publish their findings soon. Moe here The strange afterlife of Einstein’s brain