Doctor kept Einstein's brain in jar 43 years
Seven years ago, he got 'tired of the responsibility'
Sunday, April 17, 2005
By Bill Toland, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sometimes a man and his popular identity become indistinguishable, which was the case with Dr. Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who, during a 1955 autopsy of Albert Einstein, removed 2.7 pounds of gray matter from the physicist's skull, then took it home with him and kept it in a jar. Einstein was already legendary by then, but in the years that followed, a body of legend -- some of it true, much of it not -- grew around Harvey as well. He was, by varying explanations, creepy, awkward, nervous, self-aggrandizing, a hunchbacked grave-robber, a lousy husband, a malicious doctor, a good man.
This year, the stories about the man who made off with Einstein's brain may enchant, or appall, more people than usual. It's Einstein's big year, the 50th anniversary of the physicist's death and the 100th anniversary of Einstein's "annus mirabilis" -- his miracle year -- when the one-time pacifist patent clerk lay the mind-bending foundation for atomic weapons, quantum physics, global-positioning-system devices and much else. So in physics classes, at hospitals bearing his name, at universities, at museums, in scientific journals and in television specials, people are celebrating Einstein, his ongoing contributions to science, and that beautiful brain of his, the world's oddest souvenir.
And it long belonged to Harvey. For years, one of Harvey's teachers told anyone who would ask that Harvey was dead, and the brain was missing. Maybe he was mad at Harvey, or jealous, or just tired of answering questions.
Yes, Harvey made some enemies, including some in the Einstein family, and he was eventually dismissed from Princeton Hospital, where he worked in the 1950s. But he isn't dead. He's just old. He's 93, living in a small New Jersey town called Titusville. He's hard of hearing, and his naturally slow manner of speaking has grown slower.
He has a simple explanation for why he did what he did.
"I didn't know anyone else wanted to take it," Harvey sighed a few weeks ago.
On April 18, 1955, the day the 76-year-old Einstein died, a young Dr. Thomas Stoltz Harvey wasn't even supposed to be on duty. When he walked into the Princeton morgue, he was actually a last-minute replacement for Dr. Harry Zimmerman, a neuroanatomist from New York.
But that's how history works sometimes, turning on a series of coincidences and surprises. According to a passage in Michael Paterniti's dreamlike narrative, "Driving Mr. Albert," Harvey got to the brain after first working through the rest of Einstein's body: "Bearing down on a buzz saw, he cut through Einstein's head. He cracked the skull like a coconut, he removed the cap of bone, peeled back the viscous meninges, and snipped the connecting blood vessels and nerve bundles and the spinal cord."
And there it was, a "huge, rough pearl." Harvey reached into the skull, took hold of the brain and didn't let go. He dissected it into thin chunks, kept it in a soup of formaldehyde and toted it with him, from New Jersey to Kansas to California and back again over the years. He gave away bits of the brain to researchers, but always, the bulk of the prize was his. The rest of Einstein's body was cremated.
Dr. Sandra Witelson, a professor at the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine in Ontario, Canada, was one of the fortunate recipients. She and her school now own about a fifth of Einstein's brain. Harvey sent Witelson, a top researcher in the neuroscience field, a fax about 10 years ago asking if she'd like a piece of Einstein's brain. She'd never requested such a specimen, and hadn't met or spoken with Harvey in her life. "Yes, well, needless to say, it was unexpected." After Harvey made the offer, Witelson requested part of the parietal lobe, the brain's center for conceptual thinking and math skills. She suspected this lobe may have been the genesis for the theories of relativity.
In his 80s at the time, Harvey drove to Canada alone, brain in his trunk, and delivered the sample to Witelson. In 1999, she published a study on the lobe, "The Exceptional Brain of Albert Einstein," and in so doing became enshrined among the small fraternity of researchers with whom Harvey has arbitrarily shared his treasure.
"I think that Dr. Harvey was very wise in how he handled the situation of removing the brain, being its keeper, and trying to find the best and most fruitful researchers," Witelson said. "He deserves a lot of credit for that." If someone other than Harvey had received the brain, it might have been lost to history.
But others have been less charitable in their take on Harvey and his motives. Doctors from California to Canada thought he was a sham artist who grabbed the brain for no reason better than he thought it would be a neat bookshelf trophy. Einstein's son said Harvey took the brain without permission.
One book, "Possessing Genius" by Carolyn Abraham, suggests there was a secret deal between Harvey and the family that would allow Harvey to care for the brain. Evelyn Einstein, 64, the physicist's granddaughter, disputes that version of events.
"He implied he had a right to take the brain. He did not. That's just simple theft," she said, still spitting mad five decades later. "I don't have a friendly thing to say about him.... How would you feel if someone stole parts of your ancestors? Harvey and the granddaughter met several years ago, when Harvey visited California, where Evelyn Einstein still lives today.
The brief, uncomfortable visit didn't change her opinion of the old doctor.
"I was outraged," she said. "I never told him that, though."
She could tell him today, but the confession would be moot. Harvey has finally separated himself from his long-held identity.
He gave it away the year after an odd-couple road trip across America with Paterniti, the writer, who, in his book about the trek, painted Harvey as a man greatly protective of the brain, refusing to let Paterniti even have a glance it. Harvey kept it locked in the trunk of the Buick Skylark for most of the trip. On the few occasions when Harvey opened the container that held the brain, Paterniti wasn't around.
Yet after safeguarding the brain for decades like it was a holy relic -- and, to many, it was -- he simply, quietly, gave it away to the pathology department at the nearby University Medical Center at Princeton, the university and town where Einstein spent his last two decades.
"Eventually, you get tired of the responsibility of having it. ... I did about a year ago," Harvey said, slowly. "I turned the whole thing over last year."
It was actually seven years ago, in 1998. He was 85 when he delivered it to a stunned but grateful Dr. Elliot Krauss, a pathologist at Princeton. Harvey's own brain, one of history's more remarkable links to Einstein's, is moving on now, too.
First published on April 17, 2005 at 12:00 am
Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/05107/488975.stm#ixzz0iumSNi0...
Einstein's Brain is a 1994 documentary by Kevin Hull following Japanese professor Kenji Sugimoto in his search for Albert Einstein's brain. It is produced by BBC Films, and is currently not available in any commercial format.
This documentary is introduced by a set of titles informing the viewer that Albert Einstein's brain was extracted after his death in 1955 and that it was donated to the Princeton Medical Center. We then meet Kenji Sugimoto, professor of mathematics and science history at the Kinki University of Osaka. In broken English, he describes what Einstein means to him: "Einstein teaches me about love as well as science. Passion, love and science. I love Albert Einstein." Thus, he embarks on a pilgrimage to Princeton to find the legendary cerebrum. Once there, he learns that the brain has been misplaced, and the film documents his subsequent travels across the United States to recover it. The last person known to handle the item is Thomas Stoltz Harvey, a man it proves difficult to find. One lead sends Sugimoto to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, where a former associate of Harvey's, Dr. Harry Zimmerman, informs the unlikely pilgrim that the man he is seeking in fact is dead.
Sugimoto next tracks down Einstein's granddaughter by adoption, Evelyn Einstein. She tells him she has reason to believe she actually is biologically related to Einstein, and has been in dialogue with an institute to compare her DNA to that of the late scientist's brain. The brain sample used for this was sent from Harvey's residence in Lawrence, Kansas, giving Sugimoto a possible lead to the brain's current whereabouts. Once in Kansas, it appears Zimmerman was misinformed; Thomas Harvey is still very much alive. Sugimoto finally finds the brain (which is stored in three jars in a closet), and even acquires a small sample to bring back to Japan. He celebrates by singing karaoke in a local bar, and closes the documentary with a few more contemplations around his idol: "I am born in Nagasaki two years after bomb. Einstein is made responsible for the bomb, but I do not blame him. I still love Albert Einstein."
The question of veracity
Because of its somewhat absurd premise and execution, Einstein's Brain's veracity has often been questioned. The notion of a brain of such fame being misplaced and subsequently found by a bumbling eccentric has by many been found too outrageous to be true, but aside from the regular narrativization of material found in documentaries, very little actually indicates forgery.
Kai Michel's article "Wo ist Einsteins Denkorgan?" ("Where is Einstein's Brain?"), published by Die Zeit in December of 2004, shows just how easy it is to assume the film is a forgery. This article revolves around professor Michael Hagner of ETH Zürich, who after showing a group of students the film in question informs them that this is all fiction and that Kenji Sugimoto is a character. But after a phone call to a colleague he is informed that Sugimoto in fact is real, and that truth in fact is stranger than fiction. Or as Hagner himself puts it, "Nichts ist absurder als die Realität".
The documentary is lent further credibility by Michael Paterniti's 2000 book Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America With Einstein's Brain, where the author tells the story of how he chauffeured Dr. Harvey across the US to deliver the brain to Evelyn Einstein. His path crosses with several persons who appeared in Einstein's Brain, including director Kevin Hull and Evelyn Einstein, and at one point he even travels to Japan and meets Sugimoto, who proudly shows off his brain sample and invites him out to a night of karaoke. If the story of Sugimoto and Harvey is a hoax, it's an elaborate one.
Other evidence suggests that Einstein's brain surviving intact must be a hoax. In the 1990s, Michael Cammer, formerly Director of Light Microscopy and Image Analysis at the Analytical Imaging Facility at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, saw an old microscope slide of human brain clearly labeled as Einstein's. It came from the laboratory of Dr. William T. Norton, then a Professor of Neurology, who had the slide of Einstein's brain in his laboratory. The story circulating through Neurology was that Einstein's brain was distributed to researchers. Therefore, at least one of the stories has to be a hoax.