Challenges Studying Albert Einstein's Brain

SEPTEMBER 12, 2019
MD Magazine

Simon D. Murray, MD: What can you tell me about going forward? After Dr Thomas Harvey sectioned those slides, what happened?

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: He wanted to find the smartest people—anatomists, neuropathologists. He was trying to assemble a team. He was a well-trained guy. He had a fair to minimal amount of neuropathology expertise, but he wasn’t a professional neuropathologist. There were probably a handful of those guys in the 1950s, and he was seeking them out. Between seeking them out, he was also trying to dodge the government. And you say, “What do you mean the government?” Well, the government was represented by a guy named Dr Webb Haymaker, who basically was a very well-known neuropathologist. There wasn’t the NIH [National Institutes of Health] in those days, but the research branch...he ran it. And Webb Haymaker was a very imperious guy. He was the guy who did the autopsy on Benito Mussolini. He invited Dr Harvey down to meet a group of neuropathologists, neuroanatomists in Washington within a week or a couple of weeks of the death of Einstein. He really puts the full-court press on Dr Harvey, saying, “I want the brain.” And Harvey’s going, “No, I’m keeping the brain. I’ve got my own ideas.” Haymaker was not happy with that, but he had to settle for it. But Dr Harvey now has a problem. “I have control of the brain. What do I do with it?” He would take the slide sets, because he, at this point, had made 12 sets of microscopic slides, duplicate sets, 200 slides per set.

He started sending them to various well-known neuropathologists, neuroanatomists. He got nowhere. I mean, the guys in Chicago said, “We don’t do this. We’re not doing this.” It was considered a scientific dead end. You’re more interested in, what is the histology of a brain tumor? What happens to your brain tissue if you’ve had a stroke? To look at a 1-off case of a genius, that’s not in the standard tool kit of a neuropathologist. He was met with a resounding indifference.

What’s the upshot of this? The first paper on Einstein’s brain doesn’t come out until Dr Marian Diamond in 1985. Thirty years went by with Dr Harvey, and his way trying to distribute these pieces of tissue without relinquishing control, trying to avoid the kind of crazy guys who must have been coming out of the woodwork, trying to find out who was legit. It took 30 years to get the first…

Simon D. Murray, MD: That’s Dr Diamond from [the University of California] Berkeley?

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: Yes, Dr Marian Diamond. She actually inquired of him, and he sent her little thimbles full of tissue. She does the cell count, which is the way he’s thinking, as, “Anything to be found about Einstein as a genius has got to be something microscopic.” And she says, “Well, you know, there’s a higher ratio of glial cells, support cells for the brain to the brain cells, or the neuronal cells—glia to neurons, higher ratio. And it got a lot of play in 1985.

Simon D. Murray, MD: In 1985. And so that satisfied Dr Harvey. “Well, I’ve got the answer now.”

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: Well, it got Otto Nathan off his back, because the executor is going, “When are you going to publish something?” Yes, I’m sure there was a lot of gratification. Dr Harvey was always the bridesmaid, never the bride. He would bring the tissue to the guys who would do the study, but as the academic game is played, they’d make him a part author. How much he actually wrote on these papers, I have no idea. I know, having met the guy, that he was intensely interested all his life in what the brain showed. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he could translate it into the kind of scientific findings that are publishable. And that was a problem throughout his entire life.

Simon D. Murray, MD: I understand that exactly what the Einstein family didn’t want to happen was happening now: sensationalism. Somebody was going to buy pieces of it.

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: Yes.

Simon D. Murray, MD: Or offer to send money for it and all kinds of crazy stuff.

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: No, he was. As the story goes, Dr Harvey has done the autopsy. The media, or the New York Times, is on the front veranda of the old Princeton Hospital. He’s granting an interview outdoors there. When he comes back, Einstein’s eyeballs have been removed. And the guy who did it was his ophthalmologist. This is admitted. He says, “I couldn’t help myself. This was my patient,” and he removes Einstein’s eyeballs. No one knows where they are.

Einstein was afraid of that, and the family was afraid of that. You know, you’d have this phenomenon of this guy who was the genius of all time and we want a piece of the true cross. But Dr Harvey kept the faith. There were no interviews in the Saturday Evening Post. As a matter of fact, Life magazine sent a photographer down. If you go on the Internet, it never was published, but you can see the day Einstein died, and there are photographs of Dr Harvey, and the Ewing [Cemetery &] Crematorium, and the church. The family probably said, “We do not want the death of our father to be publicized in Life magazine.” So they are there to be seen, but they were never… You couldn’t pick them up in Life in April 1955. I think Dr Harvey respected that. I know he did. There were no sales on eBay, not that eBay existed.

Simon D. Murray, MD: But there could have been.

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: There could have been.

Transcript edited for clarity.

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