On April 18, 1955, Dr. Thomas Harvey, the pathologist at Princeton Hospital received a fateful call. Albert Einstein had died earlier that morning, at the age of 76, from a burst aortic aneurism. Harvey was to perform the autopsy.
In his New York Times obituary the following day, the writer notes: “The body was cremated without ceremony … after the removal, for scientific study, of vital organs, among them the brain that had worked out the theory of relativity and made possible the development of nuclear fission.” The eyes were also taken, by Einstein’s ophthalmologist, Dr. Henry Abrams, without Harvey’s knowledge or permission, most likely while Harvey was talking to reporters outside the hospital. Abrams’ motives and the whereabouts of the eyes are unknown to this day.
This came as a surprise to Einstein’s surviving family, son Hans Albert and step-daughter Margot. (His youngest son, Eduard, had schizophrenia and was institutionalized.) The cremation was in accordance with Einstein’s wishes, but there were no provisions in his will about what he wanted done with his body. Hans Albert was initially unhappy and confronted Harvey, but as a professor of hydraulic engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, he saw the brain’s scientific significance and allowed Harvey to keep the brain under the condition that it would be only be used for serious scientific research.
Harvey infused the brain with formalin, a preservative, and encased it in a plastic material called celloidin. He meticulously photographed it from all angles and then cut it into 240 pieces, some of which were further sliced into thin strips and mounted onto slides for study under a microscope. Harvey carried most of the material with him through a nomadic life that took him from New Jersey to his native Midwest and back to New Jersey, where he died at age 94 in 2007.
“People say [Dr. Harvey] stole it. No he really didn’t, not in that era. In the 1950s, the understanding was that pathologists were people of high purpose and that if they studied the specimen, then they could keep the specimen indefinitely and continue to study it,” says Frederick Lepore, a Princeton resident, neuro-ophthalmologist, and professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, whose book, “Finding Einstein’s Brain,” was published in 2018 by Rutgers University Press. Consent forms and the threat of lawsuits was less of a concern in those days, and any consent forms that may have existed, along with the autopsy report, have been lost to history. “Harvey just made the pitch of his life,” Lepore says. “He just said, ‘Well this is an unparalleled opportunity. We’re never going to get a brain like this again and I want to study it scientifically.’”
As the Princeton community prepares to celebrate “Pi Day” on Saturday, March 9, and on Einstein’s actual birthday, Thursday, March 14, the history of Einstein and his brain is worth a closer look through the lens of Lepore’s new book. He calls the work “a biography of a brain.” Lepore found the prefrontal cortex of Einstein’s brain extraordinary, not in size, but in its makeup. The right prefrontal area included a fourth gyrus, or ridge, one more than typical, which, Lepore said, may have contributed to some of his remarkable cognitive abilities.
In addition, the researchers theorized that Einstein’s unusual-looking parietal lobes offered clues to the scientist’s visuospatial and mathematical skills.
The book, he says, also points to how “we can’t really cross that chasm, the mind-brain explanatory gap. It’s still to me, one of the most fascinating, if not the most fascinating question that faces us today.”
The right man for the job
While Harvey has been subject of a lot of criticism, he was also uniquely qualified to study Einstein’s brain. He was criticized for removing the brain in the first place, for not publishing his own study of it, for not giving it to an institution that would study it, and for his seemingly casual custodianship of it. “Posterity has not been very kind to him. He really was a scholarly guy,” Lepore says.
Harvey earned his undergraduate and medical degrees at Yale, where he studied some of the 20th century’s pioneers of neuroscience. As a medical student in the 1930s he was influenced by Harvey Cushing, who had encouraged him to go into the fledgling field of neurosurgery. Cushing trained the doctors who would later define neurosurgery in the 20th century. Harvey decided to be a pediatrician instead, but that plan was derailed by a bought of tuberculosis in 1939 that required a long stay in a sanatorium. He decided to become a pathologist instead and became an assistant to Fredric Henry Lewey at the University of Pennsylvania. Lewey is best known for discovering the “Lewy body,” a neuronal inclusion — a buildup of protein in a nerve cell — that is a hallmark of Parkinson’s disease [and, oddly, spelled differently from its namesake].
During the eight months after Einstein’s death Harvey enlisted the help of one of Lewey’s technicians, Marta Keller, to preserve the brain. She was an expert in preserving brain tissue in celloidin and was one of only 11 technicians in the United States who was qualified to slice the brain with a device called a Sartorius microtome, which she used to further cut many of Harvey’s original 240 pieces. They made 2,400 slides with the rationale that the secret to Einstein’s intellect would most likely be found on a cellular level.
The human brain is made up of many different types of cells with different purposes. At the time it was thought that a person with unusual intellectual abilities may have higher numbers of certain types of cells in certain areas. Harvey sent specimens to some researchers in the 1950s, although the records are incomplete on exactly how many and to whom. Some of the people he sent slides to didn’t return them and did no known research on them, an experience that made him wary of sending samples to just any researcher who asked. Nothing remarkable was discovered among the researchers who did use the slides, so interest waned for the next 35 years.
During that time, Harvey’s personal life took many twists and turns and the brain came along with him. His contract with Princeton Hospital was terminated in 1960. He divorced his wife of 20 years and worked a series of pathology and medical jobs in the central New Jersey area in the 1960s. In 1972, having remarried, he moved to Wichita, Kansas, and got a supervisor job at a large commercial lab. The general public didn’t know the whereabouts of the brain until NJ Monthly reporter Steven Levy tracked Harvey down in Kansas for a 1978 story titled “The Search for Einstein’s Brain” that set off a wave of renewed interest. Articles in various magazines followed.
It took until 1985 for the first peer-reviewed study of the brain to be published. That year, Marian C. Diamond, a neuro-anatomist at UC Berkeley, after several years of persistent requests, received, according to Lepore, “four sugar cube-sized pieces” of Einstein’s brain. She cut the samples to produce new microscope slides and dyed them with a more modern type of stain than what was used in the 1950s. The new dye made it easier to distinguish different types of cells. She found that Einstein had more glial cells per neuron than the average man. Glial cells produce the substance myelin, which is the protective coating that encases neurons.
Diamond’s conclusion and her research methods were called into question by some critics. They questioned the fact that the 11 men in her control group were from Veterans Affairs hospitals, the possibility that the dye she used really wasn’t the best, and that she could have misidentified certain cell types. But her study set the ball rolling nonetheless. Maybe there really was something to this.
In 1999 Canadian neuroscientist Sandra Witelson set off another wave of interest with her finding that the architecture of Einstein’s brain, especially in his uncommonly large parietal lobes — 15 percent wider and more symmetrical than an average person’s — may have given him an unusual capacity for visualizing complex ideas. The parietal lobes are important to the function and processing of sensory information, spatial orientation, and body awareness.
Einstein was known for what he called his gedanken experiments, or thought experiments. While most scientists would be absorbed in proofs full of numbers and symbols, Einstein would run complex visual simulations of hypothetical situations through his mind in order to work out his theories about math and physics. It was speculated that the larger parietal lobes may have contributed to this unique ability.
A new doctor on the case
Inspired by Witelson’s study, Lepore wrote his own article, “Dissecting Genius: Einstein’s Brain and the Search for the Neural Basis of Intellect,” in 2000 in the Dana Foundation’s journal, Cerebrum. Lepore visited Harvey at his home in Titusville in June of that year and was shown a box full of microscope slides Harvey had kept; he had returned the majority of the brain to Princeton Medical Center by that point. Lepore was also allowed to visit the autopsy room at Princeton Medical Center, where he took the last and only known color photos of the remaining remnants of the brain. One of those photos appeared on the cover of the journal Cerebrum.
For the past 25 years, Lepore has lived in Princeton, a stone’s throw away from Albert Einstein’s home on Mercer Street. He grew up in Englewood. His mother was a homemaker, and his father was a professor of gastroenterology at New York University Medical School. He has always been fascinated by the philosophy of consciousness and the mind-brain connection. He majored in English at Princeton University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1971, but he had always intended to go into medicine. “My father was a doctor and he loved the field. He really loved medicine, and he was very enthusiastic. So I think that was kind of infectious, his interest in medicine.” Lepore attended medical school at the University of Rochester.
He had entertained thoughts of becoming a psychiatrist, but the more practical nature of neurology appealed to him more. “I was a liberal arts major, I was an English major, and very frequently liberal arts majors, when they go to medical school, they say well what’s the closest thing to the humanities in a medical school setting? They think about psychiatry. And we had good psychiatry, but I just realized that psychiatry circa the 1970s was still very, very descriptive. I mean we still to this day don’t really know why people are schizophrenic. If you were interested in the mind, the neurologist worked a little bit more on the brain.” Neurology offered more concrete solutions to help patients than psychiatry did at the time. For example, Lepore says, “If there was something wrong with the left side of your brain, then I knew that you might have speech or language difficulties.”
Lepore, who has been teaching and practicing medicine at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School since 1980, treats patients with rare vision disorders. He is one of fewer than 10 neuro-ophthalmologists practicing in the state of New Jersey. A neuro-ophthalmologist is a subspecialist who deals with disorders of the visual system that have to do with the brain and the optic nerves, as opposed to a regular ophthalmologist, who deals with more common eye problems like cataracts and glaucoma. He is essentially both a neurologist and an ophthalmologist.
“We see people who have optic neuritis (pain in the optic nerve) because they’re developing multiple sclerosis, we see patients with double vision. We see people who’ve had a stroke and it’s caused visual field loss. Or certain types of higher perceptual problems,” Lepore says. “Certain types of strokes can cause something called agnosia, where you can see something, but you can’t recognize it. If you see a carrot, but you don’t know it’s a carrot, even though you can see it, because the way we interpret that is not working properly. You can have people who just have plain old migraines and they see flashing lights and they’re worried about the flashing lights, so a neuro-ophthalmologist might take care of those.”
Ironically, being in such a highly specialized field allows one to be a sort of jack-of-all-trades, professionally speaking. In addition to teaching, seeing patients, and writing “Finding Einstein’s Brain” — his first book — Lepore has invented a clinical tool called the optic nerve test card and has written more than 125 pieces that have appeared in peer-reviewed scientific journals. “You can’t become a tenured professor without writing a lot of articles, and because I’m in such an esoteric field, there’s so few people who do neuro ophthalmology, stuff that you consider kind of bread-and-butter clinical observations you can write up and publish as contributions to clinical medicine,” he says.
Lepore’s research runs the gamut. In the 1980s he traveled to Guam to describe the visual findings in patients with a disease, Lytico-Bodig, that is thankfully vanishing. “It’s a horrible combination of motor neuron disease and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s that was just endemic in this little island of Guam,” Lepore says. “So like a lot of academics, when an interesting question turned up I would try to pursue it and I would try to amass some data and write some conclusions.”
But seeing patients is what Lepore has always enjoyed most. “At the core of it I was always a clinician,” he says. “I listen to my patients, and if you listen hard, they tell you things and you start to see patterns. You start to become aware of patterns of symptoms, and the patterns may suggest causes and sometimes solutions.”
Some problems in neurology can be straightforward, but other issues seen by a neurologist raise deep questions about humanity. “I think you get a little more philosophical as time goes by and you get into the specialty.” A lot of neurology, he explains, can be done on the strictly scientific basis of how the human nervous system is known to be wired. If, for example, a muscle in your hand is malfunctioning, a neurologist can pinpoint what nerve is causing the problem and know what pathway that nerve uses to communicate with the brain.
Where it gets philosophical, Lepore says, is “when you have people who have the kind of stuff [like] mind blindness, where they have a stroke in the occipital temporal pathways (the visual pathway to the temporal lobe) and they can look at a pear or an apple, and they see it, but they don’t recognize it. They have a perception without any meaning. That’s fascinating. You start to get to the bedrock of how the mind works and why would a lesion from the occiput (the back of the skull) to the temporal lobe (on the side of the brain) … cause you to still be able to see stuff but not be able to recognize it? Those are profound questions.”
“And if you take a step back from the everyday of treating headaches or treating somebody to prevent a stroke, you start to say well what do these 86 billion neurons that we have have to do with writing a symphony or recognizing a friend? It’s miraculous, but it’s so commonplace,” Lepore says. “I am by no means a philosopher, but Einstein at large is kind of the mind-brain issue, you know? Why does this 1,230 grams of gray matter that we have looked at the photographs of, why did it create a guy who was the genius of our time? How does that work?”
Apart from casual conversations, when his neighborhood walks took him past the Einstein house at 112 Mercer Street, Lepore set Einstein aside after his 2000 article. Seven years later he was contacted by Dean Falk, a paleoanthropologist and professor at Florida State who was also intrigued by the brain. She is a renowned expert in the evolution of the brain and cognition in primates. She studies fossils to see how the brains of primitive human species evolved over time and how the changes may have correlated with changes in cognitive abilities. “Dean is literally one of a handful of people who can look at this cortical anatomy and see the nuances that distinguish Einstein’s anatomy from normal human brains,” Lepore says. Could he help her? Harvey had died, but his companion, Cleora Wheatley, a former nurse at Princeton Hospital, was still in their Titusville house.
Lepore called Wheatley, who informed him that she still had a box of items in her basement. Before he could examine the contents — photographs, documents, and hundreds of slides of brain tissue — Harvey’s family donated the material to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Maryland, where access to it is restricted. Lepore and Falk finally got in for a single day in September, 2011.
What they wanted to see were the photographs Harvey had taken before the brain was dissected. The few grainy images that accompanied Witelson’s journal article were the only ones previously available. At the National Museum they found dozens more, from different angles.
Lepore took photos of the photos, and in the new photos Falk noticed several differences in the anatomical structure that Witelson hadn’t previously seen. The pictures were compared to two standard brain anatomy atlases, one from 1950 and one from 1990, which researchers agree show the standard depiction of a normal human brain. The two most notable differences were that Einstein had an extra frontal gyrus, a series of folds in the mid-frontal lobe, which is used for making plans and working memory. And she found physical evidence that he played the violin. He had something called the Omega sign, a U-shaped outgrowth of the area on the right side of the brain, which controls the fingers of the left hand. Studies have shown that kids who learn the violin for one year will develop this. Pianist get them too, but on the opposite side.
Their resulting article appeared in Brain: A Journal of Neurology and was titled “The Cerebral Cortex of Albert Einstein: A Description and Preliminary Analysis of Unpublished Photographs.” The article was downloaded 50,000 times. “That’s 50,000 downloads of pure neuro-anatomy,” Lepore says. “If you have a sleep disturbance, try reading that 24-page article. It’s just pure morphology — this gyrus that, that gyrus this. That’s when you realize, ‘Oh my God,’ people are really, really interested in Einstein’s brain.” The article set off more public interest, and the media came calling. It was written about in several popular magazines and Lepore and Falk were interviewed for an episode of the PBS show “Nova Science Now” in 2012.
Einstein “is the poster boy for the intellectual attainments of humanity,” Lepore says. “Part of the reason this thing has garnered attention is that we don’t have any comparable brain. We don’t have a Newton. We don’t have a Galileo.” The architecture of Einstein’s brain could be just a fluke because there is only one to study. “But it is kind of intriguing that his brain surface is different and his intellectual legacy is so profound. The minute you start saying, ‘oh I think I got it now. It’s got to be that frontal lobe’ they’re going to say you’re a very slick modern day phrenologist. And we really have to bend over backwards to say no, we’re just giving you the data points.”
This begs the question of confirmation bias. Did the researchers only notice differences in Einstein’s brain because they were expecting to? Are the anatomical differences unique enough that a scientist could identify Einstein’s brain out of a lineup? “I believe that a ‘blinded,’ neuroanatomically sophisticated observer would see that Einstein’s brain is different but would not be able to recognize the brain (unless he/she was thoroughly familiar with our paper) as specifically Einstein’s,” Lepore says. It’s not currently possible to identify brains with superior intellect just by looking at cortical anatomy.
The way to know for sure would be to study lots of other genius brains and compare them to the brains of all kinds of other people. But Lepore doesn’t see that happening any time soon because no one like Einstein has donated his or her brain for study and also because the funding just isn’t there. The paper on Einstein’s brain received no outside funding and was what he called “a work of sweat equity.” Finding the neural basis of genius is not a huge priority when there many more important problems that need to be researched. Lepore doesn’t think any government agency would be willing to get behind this kind of project. “They’re looking for cures for cancer or Alzheimer’s, and I don’t blame them, so I think that would be hard,” he says.
Lepore does not anticipate any personal involvement in Einstein-related research, but he would love to see others continue where he and his collaborators left off. As it turns out, the predominant 1950s idea that the key to genius might be found on the microscopic level is not wrong. Traditionally scientists were interested in counting cells, but today the focus is on the connections between the cells. The new field of connectomics promises to bridge this gap.
Connectomics is the mapping of connections between individual neurons, on a microscopic level, to create a so-called “wiring diagram,” called the connectome. This kind of map is thought to be a key to understanding the brain, though researchers are far from being able to map a whole human brain. Modern staining and cutting techniques may someday make it possible to analyze the remaining uncut sections of Einstein’s brain for this type of research. Genetics, on the other hand, cannot be analyzed, as the brain was kept at room temperature, which destroyed the DNA.
Unfortunately it’s no longer easy to get access to most of the Einstein brain samples. In 1998 Harvey handed the 170 chunks of brain still in his possession to Elliot Kraus, the current chief pathologist at the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro. There are an additional 567 microscope slides at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland. Of those, 350 were used to create a digital archive for an iPad app called the Einstein Brain Atlas that allows users to look at them as seen through a microscope. Forty-six slides were also given to the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia.
What would Einstein think?
All of this begs the question: What would Einstein think about all of this if he could have somehow known what was to play out? He did show an interest in the mind and brain and participated in neuroscience research during his lifetime. According to Otto Nathan, Einstein’s friend and the executor of his estate, he had “remarked, from time to time, on the usefulness of the human body after death,” even though he hadn’t left any specific provisions regarding this in his will. In the 1940s he wrote a detailed description of his thought processes in “The Mathematician’s Mind,” a book by colleague Jacques Hadamard about mathematical creativity and how mathematicians’ minds work.
In 1945 he had Dr. Gustav Bucky, a friend who was a doctor in Princeton, perform an X-ray of his skull, not that an X-ray of the skull would tell you much about the brain in those days. The films sold at auction in 2010 for $38,750. “Einstein had a skull X-ray, not because he had a clinical problem, but because he said, ‘let’s just see what we can see,’” Lepore says.
In 1951 Einstein, along with mathematicians John Von Neumann and Norbert Wiener, underwent EEG tests at Massachusetts General Hospital to look for any changes in his brain waves while he relaxed and thought about problems of relativity. The results didn’t show anything significant, and the experiment was never written up in a scientific journal. It was, however, featured in Life Magazine.
As for the tracings from those EEG test? That’s unknown. “Stuff gets thrown away. I mean it’s the same thing from when Einstein was a patent clerk — imagine, he spent from 1902 to 1909 in Switzerland and he would review these patents and he would write professional opinions and judgements and notations. Those were all destroyed. This was a period when this guy was going to in 1905, have his annus mirabilis where he’s going to write five or six incredible articles, but the patent reviews are gone, so, you know, stuff disappears,” Lepore says.
“He’d probably be fairly positive about [this research]; he was a restless intellect. I think neuroscience wasn’t quite so much on the radar in his heyday. He had more than enough compelling questions,” Lepore says. He believes Einstein would be more interested in physics if he were alive today, than anything, but that he would have also taken an active interest in neuroscience.
“The day he died, at his hospital bedside, there were pages of calculations where he was still trying to do the math to figure out a way that you could unify quantum mechanics and gravity and electromagnetism. I don’t know if he would’ve bought into the concept that the physical trappings of the brain will explain the mind.”
Lepore hopes that his research will shed at least a little bit of light in this regard. “It was just a very interesting story. And people are very interested in this. So why do you do it? You learn something, and it might be useful. Having written the article and the book, Lepore concludes that “people are so very interested in him because of his genius and because I think he was probably a really good guy. Aside from the picturesque appearance of the crazy hair and all that, I think he was a nice person.”
And pretty smart, as well.
This article was originally published in the March 2019 Princeton Echo.