Albert Einstein passed away on April 18, 1955. Albert Einstein passed away on April 18, 1955. Albert Einstein passed away on April 18, 1955. (Photo: Courtesy)

The twisted tale of the man who stole Albert Einstein's brain

Many are celebrating the work of the Nobel Prize winner this month, but others can't forget this bizarre story that's also part of his legacy.

A hundred years ago this month – on Nov. 25, 1915 – Albert Einstein presented his famous theory of relativity to the Prussian Academy of Science in Germany. To commemorate the occasion, museums and universities around the world will be celebrating the life of Einstein.

But from Einstein's death emerges a different chapter. It's a story that's not garnering as much attention. It happened just eight hours after the legendary physicist passed away on April 18, 1955. Princeton Hospital pathologist Dr. Thomas Stoltz Harvey was performing the autopsy and, when nobody was looking, he did the unthinkable: He stole Albert Einstein's brain.

"It's a macabre story. It was a scandal. It was done against the will of his family," Hanoch Gutfreund, the director of the Albert Einstein Archives at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told From The Grapevine. Einstein was a founder of Hebrew University, a member of its Board of Governors and the chairman of its Academic Committee. He bequeathed to the university all his papers, documents and personal correspondence. Which makes Gutfreund, himself a theoretical physicist, perhaps the world's leading expert on Einstein's legacy.

Harvey hadn't snatched the brain for the morbid fascination of keeping a part of history the same way some collectors have done with Annie Oakley's gun or Neil Armstrong's hair. Instead, Harvey was hoping to learn whether or not Einstein's genius could be quantified. Was his brain somehow wired differently than ours? Gutfreund dismisses that line of research. "I don't know," he says. "Your brain is different than my brain. There are no two brains alike."

A recent documentary on the History Channel examines the twisted episode.

For the next several decades, Harvey kept the nearly three-pound brain and stored it in a succession of beer coolers, cookie jars and, eventually, a Tupperware container. Harvey's actions were immortalized in the song "Stealing Einstein's Brain" by the British heavy metal band Attic of Love.

While Harvey's research never fully materialized, scientists in 2013 did discover that Einstein's brain was indeed distinct. Their study found that the association between the left and right hemispheres of his brain were atypical, with enhanced connection between these two parts. As it turns out, this brain trait is also shared by jugglers and musicians. (Einstein, you'll recall, played the violin.)

So what ended up happening to Einstein's brain? That question nagged at a young journalist named Michael Paterniti, a writer for Esquire and GQ magazines. In the late 1990s, he tracked down the octogenarian Harvey at his home in New Jersey. (Einstein's brain was, by now, 118 years old.) Peterniti convinced the retired pathologist that it was time to return the brain to its rightful owner – Evelyn Einstein, the physicist's granddaughter in California.

Driving Mr. Albert

So the two men, along with Einstein's brain in a Tupperware container resting on the back seat, hopped into a Buick Skylark and went on what has to be one of the most bizarre American road trips of all time.

In a review of the book, the New York Times wrote: "Reading 'Driving Mr. Albert' is like having breakfast in a roadside diner next to a stranger who starts bending your ear with some far-fetched yarn. You start out skeptical, but then, as he hits his stride, you find yourself rapt, the pancakes growing cold in front of you."

Harvey passed away in 2007 at the age of 94. History buffs hoping to catch a glimpse of Einstein's brain are in luck. Pieces of it, mounted on microscopic slides, are now part of a permanent exhibition at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.

As for the legacy of the man himself, one needn't travel far. "The interest in Einstein does not fade into history," says Hebrew University's Gutfreund, who just published a book about Einstein's most famous theory called "The Road to Relativity." The busy Israeli academic is currently globe-trotting around the world leading 100th anniversary events this month. "If one can say anything about this, the interest in Einstein increases with time," he says. "It's greater now."


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Related Topics: Albert Einstein, Science