XLVII: The Mind of a Genius

The most well-known genius of the modern age is without a doubt the German physicist Albert Einstein. Born in Ulm in 1879, he published over 300 scientific works in his lifetime and is most famous for his theory of relativity, as well as other contributions critical to the development of modern physics. Einstein passed away due to complications from an aortic aneurysm in Princeton, New Jersey, on April 18, 1955, at the age of 76. According to his wishes, his remains were cremated and his ashes were scattered privately by his family at an undisclosed location.

But in a macabre twist, one part of Albert Einstein did not share in this peaceful interment — his brain.

Immediately after his death, Einstein’s autopsy was conducted at Princeton Hospital by pathologist Thomas Stoltz Harvey. As with any autopsy, all internal organs were removed and analyzed before being returned to the body. The brain, however, was never returned. Without the permission of the Einstein family, Dr. Harvey removed the brain and preserved it by injecting a 11.4% formalin solution into the internal carotid artery and suspending the intact brain in 10% formalin, photographing it in detail from a variety of angles. He then dissected part of the brain into 240 small blocks, each 1 cubic centimeter, and encased them in collodion, which were delivered to neuropathologists around the country for analysis. There were also 46 thin slices of brain tissue taken and prepared on microscope slides. The brain was kept hidden until 1976, when a journalist discovered two large mason jars of brain tissue in Dr. Harvey’s possession. In 2010, Harvey’s heirs turned all remaining tissue and photographs over to the National Museum of Health and Medicine, other than the 46 slides which are on display at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.

Analysis of Einstein’s has raised some intriguing theories about the root of his genius. Photographs suggest that a smaller-than-normal Sylvian fissue (one of the largest fissures in the brain) allowed his neurons to connect with each other more easily; a few other regions of his brain also seemed to be more extensively connected than they would be in the average brain. His neurons showed less aging than would be expected for a man of 76 years old, meaning he was able to think with the speed of a much younger man.

Albert Einstein’s son Hans supported the study of the brain, when its theft was finally discovered, but only if it was used for high-caliber studies that would be published in scientific journals of the very highest standing. However, records from Einstein’s personal life suggest that he would not have wanted his brain to be studied at all. Yet due to one unfortunate act of disrespectful thievery, his brain has been studied anyway, leaving the public with some intriguing insights into what makes the mind of a genius.


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