Expert Interest in Albert Einstein's Brain

SEPTEMBER 03, 2019
MD Magazine

Simon D. Murray, MD: Welcome to this HCPLive® Peers and Perspectives® presentation titled “Who Stole Einstein’s Brain?” I am Dr Simon Murray, from Princeton, New Jersey. I’m an internist. I’m joined today by Dr Frederick Lepore, a neurologist from Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Dr Lepore is a prolific writer of scientific articles relating to neurology and ophthalmology. He’s 1 of 5 neuro-ophthalmologists in the state, and he’s had an avid interest in Albert Einstein for several years. He was 1 of the first physicians to collaborate on an article to report on important information about the neurobiology of Einstein’s brain, which is detailed in a prior peer-reviewed journal but is outlined in his current book, Finding Einstein’s Brain. We are going to discuss this fascinating story of the quest to try to learn more about a physical basis of Einstein’s genius by studying his brain. Welcome, Dr Lepore, or Fred.

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: Thank you, Simon.

Simon D. Murray, MD: Albert Einstein is a cult hero and a local hero because we live in Princeton, New Jersey. The first time I became interested was when I was in Elliot Krauss’s laboratory [at Penn Medicine Princeton Health] and learned that part of Albert Einstein’s brain was there. I went down to the lab and actually held a beaker in my hand containing some stuff with gauze pads all around it. It was Einstein’s brain, and it really made me feel like, “Wow, this is really special.”

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: It’s amazing.

Simon D. Murray, MD: I started to ask around, and then your name came up. That’s what interested me in this whole thing. Could you tell me how you developed an interest in Einstein’s brain?

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: Well, it’s a little bit in fits and starts. There was an incredible interest in Einstein throughout the 20th century. I’d say sort of a spike in the interest might have come in 1999 on the brain front. There was an article published, “The exceptional brain of Albert Einstein,” in The Lancet. Sandra Witelson, who did the paper, had access to photographs of Einstein’s brain, and she analyzed them. She’s a neuroanatomist in Canada. The article got an incredible amount of play. It was editorialized in the New York Times as a wonderful study looking at Einstein’s brain. In particular, her hypothesis was that Einstein’s parietal lobes, that part of his brain, were exceptional. I’m really not doing a service to say some of that was the major thrust of that article, which got incredible attention.

In 1999, I’m reading that article. I’m a neurologist. And also in 1999, to give you sense of the widespread attention on Albert Einstein, Time nominated him as the “Man of the Century.” He nosed out [Mohandas] Gandhi and FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt]. I think I was more interested in the neurobiological stuff that had come out of Canada. I pitched an idea to write an article. I’m not a neuroanatomist, but I pitched an article regarding the idea of why we are so interested in the brain of Einstein. The Dana Foundation was nice enough to say, “That’s an intriguing idea. Why don’t you write an article?” And so I had to do some research, and that’s probably where our paths are parallel a little.

The experience was to see the 2 jars of remains of the sections of Einstein’s brain, which at that time were in the old pathology laboratory at the medical center of Princeton [University] under the pathologist in chief, Elliott Krauss. And Krauss mentioned, “Well, the guy who did the autopsy, Thomas S. Harvey, is still alive and lives in New Jersey.” I had the opportunity, for several hours, in 2000, to interview him.

I wrote the article. I said, “We’re very interested in Einstein. We’re interested in the concept of genius. We’re interested in his brain.” I said, “As a neurologist, I don’t know if calling him a parietal lobe genius, which was the thesis in the original article, is the whole story. End of article. Forget it. Nothing more is going to happen because, again, I’m not doing research.”

When I talk about fits and starts, things pretty much stopped in 2000. I moved on to other things. And then came along a wonderful paleoanthropologist. A paleoanthropologist studies brain cases of hominin species, and they know a lot about brain anatomy involving man. This paleoanthropologist, Dean Falk, contacts me out of the blue 7 years later—2007—and says, “I read your article. I liked it. Do you have any access to photographs or any aspect of his brain, mostly photographs?” And I said, “No, I don’t.” The world took a couple of turns, and as it turned out, she asked me again. And I said, “Well, I know Dr Harvey passed away in 2007, but I know of his very great friend whom he lived with at the end of his life, Ms. Cleora Wheatley.” I called her up and I said, “Did Dr Harvey have any archives regarding Einstein and his brain?” She said, “Oh, yeah, there are several cartons in the basement.”

And you might figure, well, now the dominos are all going to fall in place. You go look at the cartons and you’re going to find these photographs. But nothing [is] that simple. It turned out the family wanted them curated. I tried to act as a good broker and tried to put together a team at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. I made some suggestions: The Museum of Natural History or the Smithsonian [Institution]. But as it turned out, the museum that obtained those cartons is a museum that probably no one has heard of. It’s very under the radar. It’s called the National Museum of Health and Medicine. It’s in Fort Detrick. It’s run by the Department of Defense. They got these materials. The materials were photographs that no one knew had existed. I’ll say dozens, but we subsequently found out there might have been hundreds of photographs that Dr Harvey had taken prior to sectioning Einstein’s brain at the time of his autopsy on April 18, 1955.

There were also probably 560 microscope slides of the brain. I was not able to get hold of those. Those went to the National Museum of Health and Medicine. But the Harvey family was kind of enough to say,  “Dr Lepore is trying to help us get this stuff. Please grant him access.” So you figure, well, the next week I must have seen the stuff. No, it took another 2 years—to 2011. That’s a backstory in the book. So the next start was, do we get access to these photographs that no one knew had existed? We finally did. We spent 8 hours in Silver Spring, Maryland, where Fort Detrick is, and I just took pictures. If you look in the book, there are pictures of the pictures that Dr Harvey had taken in 1955.

And the anatomist in this operation…I’m going to really stress that the smartest person in the room as far as the neuroanatomy of Albert Einstein is Dean Falk [of Florida State University]. For 3 months, she had access to look at those photographs, and relabel every groove, every bump—what we call gyri and sulci. And as 2 or 3 months went by, she said every lobe of Albert Einstein’s brain was anatomically different from the human norm.

Now that’s a pretty sweeping statement. The thing that makes it a sweeping statement in the world of paleoanthropology is they have certain standardized atlases of normative human brain anatomy. When compared with the only 2 atlases we used, and the only 2 I know of, it held up that every lobe of the brain had slightly different surface architecture. It got peer reviewed, and it was eventually published in the journal Brain. It was published in digital form in 2012, but actually, the hard copy came out in 2013. You could sort of see there was a period between 2000, writing that article, and 2009, actually knowing that these materials existed, and 2011, actually getting their hands on them so we could create some kind of data set that could be analyzed. It was not a smooth trajectory.

Transcript edited for clarity.

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