The world-renowned German-born physicist, Albert Einstein who developed the general theory of relativity is considered as one of the most influential physicists of the 20th century. Born in Ulm, Württemberg, Germany on 14 March 1879, Albert Einstein had a passion for inquiry that eventually led him to develop the special and general theories of relativity. In 1921, he won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his explanation of the Photoelectric Effect and immigrated to the U.S. in the following decade after being targeted by the Nazis. Einstein was commonly considered to be the most influential physicist of the last century, with his work also having a significant impact on the Development of Atomic Energy.

On April 17, 1955, Einstein had suffered an abdominal aortic aneurysm yet he took the draft of a speech that he was preparing for a television appearance commemorating the State of Israel’s seventh anniversary with him to the University Medical Center at Princeton for treatment, but he did not live long enough to complete it. The greatest scientist of his generation has refused surgery, believing that he had lived his life and was content to accept his fate. Einstein refused surgery, saying

“I want to go when I want,” he stated at the time. “It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share. It is time to go. I will do it elegantly.”

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein who was a theoretical physicist, peace campaigner, and undisputed genius during the last few seconds of his life at 01:15 in the morning of 18 April 1955, mumbled a few words in German, took two breaths, and died. With a focus on unified field theory during his later years, Einstein has died at the university medical center early the next morning, April 18, 1955, at the age of 76. The nurse on duty at the Princeton Hospital did not speak German, and the meaning of Einstein’s final words was lost forever.

Albert Einstein’s Brain Was Stolen

The world-famous physicist, Einstein, who lived and died in seclusion, was cremated without any funeral services at 4:10 PM in West Trenton, N.J., with only 15 relatives and close friends attending. But the next day his son, Hans Albert, read that the body in the coffin had not been intact. Einstein had passed away in his 76th year, and something rather disturbing was happening at the hospital, if not entirely nefarious. Einstein who was the keeper of one of the world’s greatest intellects brain had been stolen. And it marked the beginning of the story.

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 the scientific study.” During the autopsy, the pathologist of the Princeton Hospital, Thomas Stoltz Harvey, had removed Einstein’s brain for preservation without the permission of his family, in the hope that the neuroscience of the future would be able to discover what made Einstein so intelligent.

Dr.Thomas Stolz Harvey, the pathologist on call while in the early morning hours of the 18th April and was the doctor appointed to attend to Dr.Einstein. Seven hours after the death of the great scientist around 1 AM, Harvey had begun the autopsy, and he claimed he had given the permission to do. Once after determining the cause of death, Harvey went about removing, measuring, and weighing the brain of Einstein. Harvey later would say that he “knew we had permission to do an autopsy, and I assumed that we were going to study the brain.” Till this day, no paperwork nor approval before the autopsy had been found.

After Dr.Harvey had done all the calculations, and he interjected and immersed the brain of Einstein in formaldehyde. After he was done with that, he took Einstein’s eyeballs out, which were later given to Einstein’s eye doctor Henry Adams. However, rumors still exist that the eyeballs are in a safe deposit box somewhere in New York City. And finally, he had given the rest of the body back to be cremated.

Albert Einstein

Thomas Harvey holds a jar containing the brain of Albert Einstein, 1994

On April 19th, after the removal and storing of the brain, Harvey went about asking for the permission retroactively from the Einstein’s son, Hans Albert Einstein. Hans Albert had granted the permission, thus making Harvey promise that his father’s brain would be used for careful scientific study and the findings published in legal medical journals. When the New York Times printed obituary of Einstein on April 20th, it said that Dr. Harvey performed the autopsy “with the permission of the scientist’s son,” with another headline on that same day proclaiming as “Son Asked Study of Einstein Brain.” However, it had made no mention that this permission came after the fact.

The removal of brain and eyeballs were against the final wishes of Einstein. According to Brian Burrell’s book Postcards from the Brain Museum, Einstein had left very specific instructions. He wanted to be cremated with the brain still inside of his head, and his ashes need to scattered in secret to prevent the site becoming a place of pilgrimage.

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The Most Intellectual Brain In The World Started Its Travel

In fact, Dr.Harvey had no legal nor medical right for keeping the brain. He wasn’t even a neurosurgeon nor a brain specialist. His responsibility simply was to determine the cause of death, which was heart failure and had very little to do with the brain. Burrell had speculated that there were two possible reasons for Dr.Harvey to remove and keep for himself as it was one of the history’s most famous brains and the other one is that it was at the request of Harry Zimmerman, who was the personal physician of Einstein and a mentor of Dr.Harvey.

When news got out that Harvey had got Einstein’s brain, requests came flooding in from across the world from others who wanted to see and study it. As mentioned, one request had come from Dr.Harry Zimmerman in New York, whom Harvey promised would get the first chance to study it. Zimmerman had never publicly said this to be true, though did he make the request for the brain after the deed was done. The other theory that Burrell gives is that Dr.Harvey, perhaps inspired by the study done by Oskar Vogt’s on Lenin’s brain in 1926, simply got caught up at the moment and was transfixed in the presence of greatness.

Zimmerman and his hospital at New York had prepared for Dr.Harvey and the brain, but it never showed. After a short time, Princeton Hospital published that the brain would stay in New Jersey. The Washington Post headlined “Snarl Develops Over Which Hospital Will Conduct Einstein Brain Study,” while another newspaper went with “Hospitals Tiff over Brain of Einstein.” The controversy over the ownership of Einstein’s brain had become a circus, and it was about to get even more bizarre.

Albert Einstein

Slides of Einstein’s brain on the display at London’s Wellcome Collection, 2012

Technically, Princeton Hospital never really had the possession of Einstein’s brain. Dr.Harvey did. He kept it in a jar in his home office. Soon after the public dispute with Dr.Zimmerman and with still no medical studies on the brain underway, Dr.Harvey was fired from the Princeton Hospital. He took the brain with him.

After losing his job, Harvey had taken Albert Einstein’s brain to a Philadelphia hospital, where a technician sectioned it into over 240 blocks and embedded the pieces into squares of celloidin, a semi-solid plastic-like substance using a variation of the Economo method. Harvey had given some of the pieces to Dr.Zimmerman and placed the remainder in two formalin-filled glass jars, for himself. He then stored it in the basement of his house in Princeton. Occasionally, Harvey would try to interest a brain researcher in his quest, but most of the inquiries he fielded had come from the reporters. Whenever they questioned what was being done, Harvey would confidently proclaim that he was just one year away from publishing his results.

Harvey’s marriage had soon fell apart, and he left Princeton in search of the work. After his wife had threatened to dispose of the brain, he returned to retrieve it and took it with him to the Midwest. For a time he had worked as a medical supervisor in a biological testing lab in Wichita, Kansas, keeping the brain in a cider box stashed under a beer cooler.

However, years passed, and no scientific paper had emerged. After a while, Albert Einstein’s brain was forgotten. For the next thirty years, Harvey moved to the Midwest, carrying the brain along, never publishing any studies. Every once in a while, a researcher contacts him, and he would send them a slide or two, hoping that they could do the research that he never did. For a few times, the story of Einstein’s brain drew the public’s attention again, especially after an article that was published in the regional magazine New Jersey Monthly by Steven Levy in 1978.

He described the contents in one of the jars. “A conch shell-shaped mass of wrinkly material the color of clay after firing. A fist-sized chunk of grayish, lined substance, apparent consistency of a sponge. And in a separate pouch, a mass of pinkish-white strings resembling bloated dental floss.” A second, larger jar contained “the dozens of rectangular translucent blocks, the size of Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews.”

Albert Einstein

Harry Zimmerman, who possessed about a sixth of the specimen had found nothing unusual, at least not in the brain itself. He was also not so sure about his former colleague, and he had begun to deflect the reporter’s questions by claiming that Dr.Harvey was dead. It was not until 1985 that Harvey had finally caught a break.

Nearly three decades after the death of Einstein, a Berkeley researcher read about the brain and its eccentric guardian, and she contacted Harvey to request a piece of it as she had an interesting idea. Marian Diamond of UCLA had finally published a study on Albert Einstein’s brain after receiving the slides from Harvey. Published in Experimental Neurology, and however, her study was admittedly far from the conclusive, but it did speculate that Einstein’s brain had got more glial cells for every neuron than an average brain.

Glial cells are the support cells for neurons. They continue to divide throughout one’s lifetime, whereas the neurons do not. Consequently, there were only two ways for the neuron-to-glial-cell ratio to increase. Either the neurons die off too rapidly (which happens to people living with senile dementia), or the glial cells would increase in number. In her previous investigations, Diamond had found that enriched environments result in a proliferation of glial cells, thus lowering the neuron-to-glial-cell ratios in rats. That was the same ratios in Einstein’s brain, she writes, “suggests a response by glial cells to greater neuronal metabolic need.”

It meant that the cells had a greater “metabolic need” that means more energy was used and needed, which it was speculated could also mean an increase in conceptual and thinking skills. While the recent research may have exposed this theory, there were finally studies about Albert Einstein’s stolen brain published in legitimate medical journals. Still, it was not the end of the brain’s journey. A handful of studies have been conducted on it since the 1980s, but most have either been dismissed or discredited. Conceivably the most famous came in 1999 when a team from a Canadian university had published a controversial paper.

Albert Einstein

Einstein began playing violin and once said if he were not a Physicists, then he would be a musician

The Lancet paper by Sandra Witelson from McMaster University in Canada studied Harvey’s original photographs of Einstein’s brain. She had claimed Einstein possessed some unusual folds on his parietal lobe, a part of the brain that is associated with mathematical and spatial ability. She also said that the brain was wider than normal, and seemed better integrated. Perhaps, Witelson had speculated, the shape of the brain and it may relate to Einstein’s descriptions of his thinking in which “words do not appear to play any role,” but there’s an “associative play” of “more or less clearer images”?

The eminent anthropologist Dean Falk in 2012 had worked with a set of previously unseen photographs of Einstein’s brain that Harvey had taken with an Exacta camera. She had done a complete audit of the brain, naming every convolution and crevice, and found a number of unusual features.

Perhaps the most striking are that Einstein had an extra ridge on his mid-frontal lobe, the part used for making plans and working memory. Most people have three ridges, but Einstein had four in number. She also found that the parietal lobes of Einstein’s brain were dramatically asymmetric, and he had a knob on his right motor strip. The latter feature is called the “sign of omega, ” and it is thought to be correlated to the musicians who use their left hands. It is to note that Einstein played the violin.

Falk was also named in a 2013 study that looked at Einstein’s unusual corpus callosum, the bundle of fibers connecting the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The researchers had found Einstein’s was thicker than in control groups, suggesting enhanced co-operation between brain hemispheres.

Albert Einstein

In 1912 Albert Einstein was awarded Nobel Prize for his work in Theoretical Physics and his discovery of Photoelectric Effect

Thomas Harvey had passed away in 2007, but before his death, he had donated the brain to the Princeton Hospital, which is the same place that the brain began its extra-curricular journey over 62 years prior. Public interest once again has increased and the researchers, who had received the slices of Einstein’s brain over the years, had sent them back to Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania where it was originally cut.

Today, the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia is the only place in the world one can currently see the pieces of Einstein’s brain on slides, stained, and with the handwritten notes from Thomas Harvey. The slides were also once on display in 2013 at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Maryland.