Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Have Brain, Will Travel

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, is said to have taken the brain without the family's permission. He is also said to have given Einstein's eyes to the physicists optometrist.

Certain that the brain would provide endless opportunities of study to scientists of the future, Harvey eventually lost almost everything in his efforts to keep it in his possession.

He lost his job, his marriage, his house, and for the longest time traveled around America with the brain in the back of his car.

All this time he was seemingly, and somewhat strangely, appealing to random researches and asking them if they would benefit from a study of this or that part of the physicists anatomy.

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 sole keeper.

While we don't often admit it to ourselves, the contemporary fetishization of knowledge has allowed the organ of the intelelct to take on an uncanny quality, at once grotesque, and yet captivating. The greater we value the intellect of the person, 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 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 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.

Einstein's Brain:

For More Information:

Michael Paterniti, Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America With Einstein's Brain.
Carolyn Abraham, Possessing Genius: The Bizarre Odyssey of Einstein's Brain.

(For another scientific relic, see Galileo's finger:

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