Controversy Surrounding Albert Einstein's Autopsy

SEPTEMBER 05, 2019
MD Magazine

Simon D. Murray, MD: Can we go back to prior to this, to when Albert Einstein died, and talk about the story of what happened to his brain?

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: Einstein was living on borrowed time. He had an abdominal aortic aneurysm. In the late 1940s, I think 1949, they didn’t have the vascular surgery. But they did do abdominal surgery, and they wrapped this big aneurysm with cellophane with the idea that it would scar down and wouldn’t bleed.

Simon D. Murray, MD: Saran Wrap, I hope?

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: In 1949, who knows? At any rate, they did that, and he managed until about 1955. Then he began having severe abdominal pains. Of course, that abdominal aortic aneurysm ruptured sometime in April 1955. He was in the Princeton Medical Center, Princeton Hospital, for several days. In the early morning hours of April 18, he died. He muttered a few words in German. The night nurse did not speak German, so we don’t know what his last words were. At his bedside table were the notes that he had. As long as he was able to think and work, he was still trying to figure out what’s called the theory of everything. He was trying to reconcile general relativity and quantum physics. We still haven’t done it, but that was what he did probably for the last 30 years of his life. Autopsy permission had been granted. It was more routine in the 1950s. In the early-morning hours of April 18, Dr Thomas Harvey, the pathologist, does the autopsy.

Simon D. Murray, MD: Can I stop you for a second?

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: You bet.

Simon D. Murray, MD: Autopsy permission was granted, or it was not granted?

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: Autopsy permission was granted, yes. Except, if you say, “Could I see that,” it doesn’t exist. The actual autopsy report from April 18, 1955, has been lost for decades. I think, though, Dr Harvey had to eventually confront the eldest son of Einstein, Hans Albert, and Otto Nathan, PhD, Einstein’s executor. I think it’s very likely that there was an autopsy permit granted. Where it gets tricky is, what happens after you determine the cause of death from the autopsy? What happens to the body? And in our case, this discussion is about what happens to the brain. And that’s a little more of a handshake deal.

All I can tell you is Dr Harvey did the autopsy. When he opened the abdomen, he found a lot of blood because the aneurysm had ruptured. But once he had established that, he incised the scalp, pulled out a bone saw, took off the top of the skull, grabbed Einstein’s brain, severed the dura mater, severed the spinal cord, severed the carotid and vertebral arteries, and put it into formaldehyde. Not only did he put it in formaldehyde, he actually infused formaldehyde through the carotid arteries. A translation for people who are not pathologists—and I’m not a pathologist: That ensures the best preservation of tissue, to not only soak the structure in formalin but also to infuse it.

He did that, but he is off script. There is nothing about preserving any of the organs for further study. And in point of fact, Einstein had died that morning and Einstein was taken for cremation. Again, that’s not in the will. But somehow, the family—the remaining daughter, maybe the son Hans Albert—understood that he wanted to be cremated and took him to Ewing [Cemetery &] Crematory. No one really knows where the ashes were scattered, but he was cremated. They may have been scattered close by. Some people say they were scattered in Lake Carnegie [in New Jersey] because he liked to sail there. But the missing link here is, what happened to the brain?

The family reads the April 19 front page of the New York Times announcing the death of the greatest scientist, Albert Einstein. It says the brain has been preserved for science. The family goes, “That’s the first we ever heard of that.” So Hans Albert, the son, and Dr Otto Nathan, the executor, meet Dr Harvey at Princeton Hospital. Dr Harvey makes the pitch of his life. He says, “We will never get an opportunity to study the brain of an epical genius such as Albert Einstein.” The son went for it. And probably if Hans Albert went for it, Dr Otto Nathan, the executor, had no choice but to go along with it. We really don’t know. To my knowledge, this was a handshake deal.

There are documentaries that claim Dr Krauss—I’m going to say Dr Krauss, but I can’t tell you for certain because in this documentary he presented himself as Dr X—says there’s a signed permission slip. No one has ever seen it. It would be fascinating to see it. It would be more than fascinating. It would actually, in a sense, clear Dr Harvey’s name, because there’s this kind of urban myth about Dr Harvey—that he stole Einstein’s brain.

Simon D. Murray, MD: Yeah.

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: It was a different time in the 1950s, and it was a handshake deal. I believe when Dr Harvey explained why the brain needed to be studied, from the sincerest scientific reason, Dr Otto Nathan and Hans Albert said, “We agree.” There’s further evidence that they agreed because about 10 years later, Dr Otto Nathan sent very impatient letters to Dr Harvey saying, “You kept the brain to study. When are you going to publish an article?” I don’t think you would be criticizing someone who stole the brain about why they aren’t producing the work. I think Dr Harvey legitimately, sincerely felt that this was an unprecedented opportunity. The family did. And that’s how the brain of Albert Einstein came into the scientific world.

Transcript edited for clarity.

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