The Strange Story of Einstein’s Brain

by Cie McCullough Buschle on March 14, 2011

in Arts and Culture

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

By all standards Albert Einstein was a genius. There are not many people that will argue that point. He was so smart, he knew enough to be cremated after death, and have his ashes scattered.

You see, Einstein didn’t want his grave to become a tourist attraction, or a museum, or a shrine. He wanted people to remember him by reading his work, or at least trying to understand it.

Unfortunately for Einstein, whether he knows it or not, it didn’t quite work out that way.

Oh, his body was cremated and scattered to the four winds, but not all of it. The man who was performing the autopsy on Einstein – pre-cremation, of course – removed and preserved the brain.

One Mr Thomas Stoltz Harvey, pathologist, removed and weighed the brain within seven hours of Einstein’s death. Apparently, he wasn’t supposed to. He took the eyes and gave them to Henry Abrams, Einstein’s eye doctor. He wasn’t supposed to do that either. When asked to return the organs, Harvey refused and was promptly fired.

Now the story gets odd.

After photographing it from many angles, Harvey cut up Einstein’s brain into cubes, 1 centimeter in size, and encased them in a plastic like material. Some of these cubes were sliced micro thin and mounted on slides. Hundreds of these slides were made, many going out to leading researchers, but Harvey kept some for his own research.

Although Einstein’s family had not known of any of this, they did give permission when they found out, as long as any significant findings were used in scientific journals and not “sensationalized”.

That was in 1955. In New Jersey. Nobody heard anymore about it until 1978, twenty-two years later. At that time a reporter named Steven Levy was given an assignment by his editor to “Go find Einstein’s brain”.

He did. It was in Wichita, Kansas. Thomas Harvey still had it, or, had the pieces of it. They were in two big jars, in a box marked “Costa Cider”, behind a beer cooler in Harvey’s office.

In 1997 Harvey decided to meet with Einstein’s granddaughter. He was by then living once again in New Jersey. Harvey and freelance magazine writer Michael Paterniti drove across country to California, with the brain locked in Tupperware in the trunk of the car. After the long drive it turned out that the granddaughter could do perfectly well without her famous grandfather’s brain, thankyouverymuch, and the two men drove back east and parted ways.

Finally, after years of being hidden and shuffled from one place to the next, the brain that gave the world E=MC2 came to rest where it rightfully should be – Thomas Harvey decided to give it back to Princeton Hospital, to the very man who held his old job. Over forty years later there were tests and findings, disputes and rebuttals.

What was proven was that this was an unremarkable brain for a very remarkable man. Does the brain make the man, or the man make the brain? Even Einstein could not answer this.

Read About It!

As always, there is more to the story, and, as always, that can be found in books:

Postcards from the Brain Museum: The Improbable Search for Meaning in the Matter of Famous Minds

Postcards from the Brain Museum: The Improbable Search for Meaning in the Matter of Famous Minds

Author Brian Burrell’s book chronicles the scientific odyssey to understand genuis and madness through the study of famous brains, including those of Albert Einstein, Walt Whitman and Vladimir Lenin.


Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain

The chronicles of Michael Paterniti, Thomas Harvey, and the famous brain.



For a fun take, have a listen to Stuff You Should Know, with Chuck and Josh, as they talk about “How Einstein’s Brain Worked”

| Cie McCullough Buschle lives with her dog Einstein and a cat named Burton Guster. She is a lifelong traveler and enjoys researching history through holidays, toys, and everyday objects. Cie is a sculptor and co-owns The Creative Chameleon, a place where kids and adults can create, paint, celebrate, and just have a lot of fun. Sometimes you can find her time traveling back to the Middle Ages as part of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

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