The annals of history are dotted with unfortunate examples of individuals who have succumbed to the allure of fame and fortune over what they know to be sound judgment. One notable instance was triggered by the demise of someone who has most definitely earned a prime position in my Intellectual Hall of Fame: Albert Einstein (1879-1955).
I have always found Albert Einstein inspiring on many levels. His absolute brilliance, wisdom, and ideals are beyond reproach. The eulogistic details of my infatuation with this great man, however, I leave for another day. This column’s focus is on the events after his death.
Dr. Einstein lived in Princeton, N.J., in his final years. My high school history teacher (Brother Warren) claimed that he grew up on the same street and once tossed a football back and forth with the old man. I have no idea if that story is true, but the image of my professor as a young boy tossing a ball with the Great One is an image that has stayed with me since high school.
Albert Einstein complained of chest pains on April 17,1955. He was rushed to the Princeton Medical Center in Plainsboro, N.J. He died the next morning of an aorta aneurysm. He was 76 years old.
As was the norm, an autopsy was performed on the famed scientist. It was performed by Dr. Thomas Stoltz Harvey, a young pathologist. Einstein had hated the notoriety that fame brought him and had left explicit directions that he wanted a quiet funeral and that his body be cremated, with his remains scattered in secret. Most of his wishes were followed to the letter. The services were indeed private, and everything went as planned except for one important detail: he wasn’t cremated.
As much as Einstein hated notoriety, Dr. Harvey loved it. Seeking fame and fortune, Dr. Harvey violated the Great One’s wishes, and removed his brain and eyes. When confronted by the family, he tried to assuage their concerns by promising that the brain would be used only for research and that the results would be published in mainstream journals.
Harvey then gave the eyes to Einstein’s ophthalmologist, and, to this day, they remain in a safety deposit box in New York City. Harvey weighed and photographed the brain before dissecting it into 240 separate pieces. His actions didn’t go unnoticed and the hospital that employed him demanded that he return the specimen. When he refused, he was fired. Shortly thereafter, his wife left him.
Despite his setbacks, Harvey kept the brain in the basement of his house in Princeton. He kept it in a cider box stashed under a beer cooler. Seeking employment, he moved first to Kansas, and then to Missouri. In each place, he failed to land a steady job, while stubbornly believing that his prize possession would someday turn his fortunes around.
When first confronted by Einstein’s family, Dr. Harvey had promised to soon release a report of his findings after studying the famous brain. That promise was made over and over again for 43 years. After decades, he eventually sent two very small pieces of the brain (while keeping most of it) to two different researchers.
Then, in the early 1990s, the renegade pathologist returned to Princeton. There, he met up with a magazine writer named Michael Paterniti and the two hatched a plot to finally cash in on Harvey’s prime possession. They travelled across the country to visit Einstein’s granddaughter, who lived in California. They had her grandfather’s brain stuffed in the trunk of a Buick Skylark. Paterniti’s book chronicling this trip, “Driving Mr. Albert,” was the only thing to come of this stunt.
Perhaps feeling remorse for his actions, or maybe just giving up on his somewhat quixotic quest, in 1995, Dr. Harvey sent 20 percent of the brain to McMaster University for future study and returned another part to the hospital where it all began back, the Princeton Medical Center.
Thomas Stoltz Harvey died ignominiously in 2007, never attaining the fame and fortune that he so desperately desired, and that had cost him everything. After his death, the family donated the remaining parts of Albert Einstein’s brain for testing.
At last, the brain underwent legitimate testing. If you’re like me, you must be curious to know what made Einstein so smart? Are there any clues in the structure of his brain? The size of a brain, as with other parts of the anatomy, does not matter—or at least that’s what I’m told! Einstein’s brain was on the smallish side; however, it did have some structural abnormalities which stand out.
McMaster University’s study revealed that the Great One’s brain had an immense parietal lobe. In fact, it measured 15 percent wider than the average human. There is a neighboring region in our brains called the parietal operculum, which is missing completely in his brain. Part of his brain grew abnormally large (presumably during childhood) and took up the space which would have been occupied by another that part.
It is not surprising that the super enlarged part of Einstein’s brain (parietal) is the one which researchers have associated with mathematical thought, visual special cognition and imagery of movement. He, more than any scientist in history, is known for his use of visual imagination to arrive at his theories. One striking example of his exquisite exercise of his extraordinary imagination was his two famous questions: what would it be like if space time were curved? And what would it be like to ride on a ray of light?
You may have wondered about the part of the brain that was missing, the parietal operculum, which had been crowded out by his parietal lobe. That part is normally associated with speech development. We know that Einstein, for all his brilliance, didn’t start speaking until he was 3 years old. As a child, he had so much difficulty speaking that he would repeat sentences over and over again. In addition, when he was 16 years old, he failed several language exams. He would be the first to admit that he thought visually rather than verbally.
I guess science has benefited by Dr. Harvey’s sins. Yet, I can’t help but feel that Albert Einstein, like any one of us, should have been able to determine his final resting place. And, I doubt he ever wanted his brain to be in the trunk of a Buick Skylark.