Studying Einstein's brain for knowledge Pathologist looks for clues to what made him brilliant

October 21, 1993|By Cynthia Mayer | Cynthia Mayer,Knight-Ridder News Service

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- The most celebrated brain of the 20th century resides in Apartment 13 on the second floor of a nondescript brick building here.

It hasn't produced a worthy thought in almost 40 years. Which is to be expected, given its current state: bathed in alcohol, cut into about 100 chunks and slices, and divvied up among three glass jars.

Can this really be what's left of the mind that conceived the Theory of Relativity?

It can, and is.

Albert Einstein is in Kansas now. Well, his brain is, anyway.

It belongs to Thomas Harvey, a retired pathologist who keeps it in his hall closet. How did Einstein come to this?

The story stretches back to 1955, when the famous dandelion-haired physicist was working in Princeton, N.J., and Dr. Harvey was a pathologist at Princeton Hospital.

The two men knew each other slightly. Their relationship became more intimate, however, when Einstein died and Dr. Harvey happened to be on duty.

Called on to perform an autopsy of the 75-year-old scientist, Dr. Harvey took that as permission to begin what has become a lengthy examination of Einstein's brain. His goal has been to discover some physical evidence of intellectual brilliance.

"Nobody had ever found a difference that earmarked a brain as that of a genius," he said. "A few brains of great men had been studied, but only a few. So it was mainly an idea of seeing what we could find."

Dr. Harvey's search for the seat of genius became a controversy.

It seems he neglected to let Einstein's family know that he had the great man's gray matter.

It was only after the rest of Einstein's remains had been cremated and his ashes were scattered over the Delaware River -- and word was leaked to the New York Times -- that his heirs learned Dr. Harvey possessed Einstein's central organ.

Family members, understandably, were upset, he admits. He went to them in person to persuade them that studying the brain would be scientifically worthwhile. They agreed.

Dr. Harvey then enlisted the help of his former teacher at Yale University, and, together with a technician at the University of Pennsylvania, they carved the brain into blocks, each of which was tagged and numbered before being set afloat in formaldehyde. Microscopic slices of the organ were also made to prepare several sets of slides.

Since then, the brain has been Dr. Harvey's hobby and passion, and for nearly 40 years, he has carried it with him from state to state and job to job, studying it in his spare time in the hopes of finding a clue to genius.

So far he has been baffled.

Einstein's brain, it turns out, looks like anyone else's. But, Dr. Harvey says, "I'm only two-thirds of the way through."

Dr. Harvey has also lent slices of the brain to other scientists to study -- so many, in fact, that he worries they've been misplaced forever.

Thus far, only one researcher has found anything promising. A University of California neurologist, Marian Diamond, discovered that Einstein's left parietal lobe had more glial cells than normal. She has theorized that since glial cells are known to feed neurons -- they are usually found in areas of the brain recovering from injuries -- this meant that the cells might also be factors in intelligence.

Would Einstein have approved of this?

"Oh, I think so," Dr. Harvey said. He was, after all, a scientist.

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