EINSTEIN’S BRAIN ON EXHIBIT IN PHILLY

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, founded in 1787, is the oldest professional medical organization in the country. Back in the 18th century, twenty-four physicians of Philadelphia gathered “to advance the science of medicine and to thereby lessen human misery.” Today, over 1,500 elected Fellows continue to gather at the College and work towards better serving the public. Throughout its 200 year history, the College has helped both medical professionals and the general public learn about medicine as both a science and as an art. The College is home to the Mütter Museum and the Historical Medical Library and is now home to Albert Einstein’s brain. Interesting story how that came about.


In 1955 at the age of 76 Einstein died of an abdominal aneurism. Thomas Harvey was the pathologist at the time who performed the autopsy and instead of putting the brain back into the skull, he kept it claiming that he had received permission from Einstein’s son. The family disputed this, of course, and Harvey lost his job. But he held onto Einstein’s brain, dividing it into 240 sections which he kept in jars of formaldehyde at his house.

Harvey never published any significant findings about his extraordinary possession claiming that he couldn’t find anything unusual about it. He did give a box containing 46 slides to his pathologist friend William Ehrich as a thank you gesture for allowing him to make samples in his lab. Each slice is between 20 and 50 microns thick. To give you a better idea, the average human hair is about 100 microns. Harvey sent other samples to neuroscientists over the years who have discovered some interesting things.

For instance, a Dr. Marian Diamond noted that the brain held 73% more than the average amount of glial cells. Glial cells provide energy to the brain’s network of neurons. Apparently Einstein’s deep thinking caused his brain to burn up a lot more calories than the average person.

Because Einstein’s inferior parietal regions on both hemispheres were far more developed than average, his brain appears 15% wider. These regions cover visuospatial cognition, mathematical thought, and imagery of movement and the size of Einstein’s signifies impressive visualization skills. There’s a groove that usually runs through this area which seems to be lacking in Einstein’s brain. His neurons, therefore, must have been able to work together freely without any hindrance. The brain’s blood vessels were shown to lack any significant build-up of lipofuscin, a kind of cellular waste which comes with aging. These discoveries seem to point to a highly functioning organ…dare I say one belonging to a genius.


The slides come to the Mütter Museum by way of William Ehrich who had them of Thomas Harvey. Ehrich gave them to a local doctor, Allen Steinberg, who passed them down to Dr. Lucy Rorke-Adams, the senior neuropathologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Rorke-Adams donated them to the College of Physicians, believing that the “slides belong in history, medical history, and that the College of Physicians is a wonderful repository of medical history.” Mütter Museum curator Anna Dhody couldn’t agree more. She recently told livescience.com: “He [Einstein] was a unique individual, and to have the organ that’s most associated with intelligence of this great man is a wonderful opportunity.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly interested in seeing these tiny chunks of energy and matter. Let’s go to Philadelphia!


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