The Story of Kansas

Einstein’s brain provides lifelong lab for researcher

Editor’s note: This story was originally published April 5, 1993.

There once was a time when Albert Einstein’s brain called Wichita home.

Well, maybe it didn’t exactly say the word, but it was nestled in Thomas Harvey’s home in Wichita from 1975 to 1979.

Now the brain - actually several portions of it - is in Lawrence, under the continuing care of Harvey, a retired general practitioner and pathologist. Some of those pieces, he said, are in his apartment, and others are in storage.

And just what is the brain of one of the world’s greatest scientific minds doing in Mason jars in Kansas?

Furthering research, Harvey says.

That’s why he acquired the brain nearly 40 years ago.

In 1955, Harvey was a pathologist at Princeton Hospital in New Jersey. Einstein, the originator of the theory of relativity, had moved there in 1933 to work at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University.

When Einstein died in April 1955, Harvey was asked to perform the autopsy. He determined that the cause of Einstein’s death was arteriosclerosis a blister on the side of the aorta had broken and caused a hemorrhage. During the autopsy, Harvey removed the brain and asked the family for permission to examine it.

Since then, he has studied the cortex and frontal cortex of the brain and sent other parts to more than a dozen medical research centers around the world. His hope is that scientists can determine whether Einstein’s gray matter held the secret to his genius. So far, however, not much has been learned, Harvey said.

’’There are billions of cells in the brain, “ he said. “We don’t have the ways that we would like to have to study them.”

In a July 1978 article of New Jersey Monthly, Harvey said that he and other scientists were trying to determine whether there was a difference between Einstein’s brain and the average, everyday variety. At the time, Harvey was director of Statlab Laboratory, a Wichita company that analyzed biological specimens for local physicians.

Not long after the 1978 article was published, Harvey moved to Weston, Mo., to establish a private medical practice. In 1990, he moved to Lawrence, where he now works part time for a display advertising company.

The work on Einstein’s brain has been monumental, he said.

’’We never completed examining all the different parts of it, “ said Harvey, now 80. “I plan to do that in the next few years. What’s left I will then give to a medical school.”

He hasn’t determined which school. It could be Yale where he went to school or the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

Another researcher who has been studying the brain is Marian Diamond, a University of California anatomist.

In a story in the April 1993 issue of Longevity Magazine, Diamond relates how in 1983 she saw a picture in a scientific journal of a cardboard box that was said to contain the preserved remains of Einstein’s brain.

Diamond called Harvey and asked him for four sugar-cube-size pieces of it. The magazine said that Harvey agreed, but that nothing was sent. Three years later, Diamond called again. This time Harvey complied, sending the brain sections, embedded in a resinlike material, in a mayonnaise jar.

In the article, Diamond said she was particularly interested in the ratio of Einstein’s neurons and glial cells. Neurons are the brain’s working cells. Glial cells support and furnish nutrients to the neurons. Her hypothesis was that exceptional brains have more glial cells per neuron than normal brains do.

When she counted the cells in the samples of Einstein’s brain, she found she was right. Her work was later published.

Members of Einstein’s family have been supportive of the research, although one granddaughter, Evelyn Einstein, said she thought the brain “could be better off in more reliable hands.”

The study of Einstein’s brain may be interesting, but its significance is, well, relative, says noted Harvard science writer and historian Stephen Gould. Gould recently said he hopes that whoever has Einstein’s brain in the future will provide it with “a nice, safe place.” He said he doubts that further research will reveal anything more.

That’s just fine with Harvey. “We are not trying to prove anything, “ he said. “There is so much that isn’t known. We want to describe what’s there in his brain.”