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Book Review

Following Einstein's Brain on a Haphazard Trip

April 11, 2002|CARMELA CIURARU | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

POSSESSING GENIUS

The Bizarre Odyssey of

Einstein's Brain

By Carolyn Abraham

St. Martin's Press

288 pages, $24.95

When Albert Einstein died on April 18, 1955, his body was cremated, but not before parts of him were removed for questionable safekeeping. His eyeballs ended up with an ophthalmologist friend, who stored them in a safety deposit box at a New Jersey bank. And Einstein's brain was claimed by an itinerant, elusive man named Thomas Harvey, who decided to take first and seek permission later.

The story of the Nobel laureate's precious brain--which took on a life of its own long after Einstein's death--is the focus of "Possessing Genius," the compelling first book by Canadian science journalist Carolyn Abraham. Over the decades, numerous reporters delved, mostly in vain, into the postmortem whereabouts of Einstein's gray matter. Two years ago, journalist Michael Paterniti published the weird and entertaining "Driving Mr. Albert" (since optioned for film), in which he chronicles his cross-country road trip with Harvey. Stored in the trunk of their rental car are pieces of Einstein's brain, jiggling around inside an alcohol-filled Tupperware container.

"Possessing Genius," which weaves a mini-biography of Einstein's life into the narrative, distinguishes itself by being the first comprehensive history of the brain's haphazard travels for the last five decades. Although some information overlaps with Paterniti's book, Abraham's well-researched account is also worth reading and serves as a more substantial companion to the largely anecdotal "Driving Mr. Albert."

A simple version of what happened to Einstein's brain goes like this: In 1955, Harvey was the chief pathologist at Princeton Hospital, where Einstein died at 76. Harvey handled the autopsy, extracted Einstein's brain and kept it for more than 40 years. "Did he take the brain for science," Abraham writes, "or as a souvenir?" The answer is an enduring mystery. Harvey hoarded his prize but never exploited it for money or fame.

Although he is portrayed as well-meaning, Harvey also seems maddeningly inept, secretive, disorganized and indecisive. He saw himself as the brain's guardian, but he also hoped to dissect and study it. He wanted to determine whether size really did matter--if having a bigger brain had any relation to a person's intelligence. Although he intended to analyze the brain's physiology and publish his findings in a scientific journal, he never quite got his act together.

"Possessing Genius" unfolds with the kind of unsparing detail--precise, clinical, anatomical--that makes you want to skip ahead but then stops you in your tracks with vivid passages that remind readers why we can't all go to medical school. "Tilting Einstein's head left," Abraham writes of the autopsy, "[Harvey] jabbed first behind the ear, pulling his blade down the side of the neck, over the clavicle and curving inward beneath the collarbone ... he drew the scalpel down again, across the chest, across the abdomen, pasty, weathered skin giving like cold butter to the groin, until he had carved a Y shape into the torso of the corpse."

It is shocking to discover that the mind of the man who worked out the theory of relativity could be handled with such poor, sloppy supervision. Yet Abraham effectively explains the chaos that erupted after Einstein's death. (She interviewed many of the key figures, including Harvey, and was given access to private letters, records and documents.) She describes the intense media attention on Einstein's death and the angry turf wars between Princeton Hospital and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine; as well as the tensions between Einstein's relatives and the estate's executor, who would insist until the day he died, at 94, that Harvey fully explain his actions.

The dilemma was that no one had told Harvey that he couldn't take the brain--and no one had ever given him permission to take it. It's baffling that neither the family nor the executor pressed Harvey to relinquish the brain, and he had publicly claimed that he had the family's consent to do what he'd done. What mattered most to the relatives was that the issue remain private, and in that regard Harvey's custody satisfied them. They were protective of Einstein's legacy, which might explain why they never pressured Harvey with legal proceedings.

The story Abraham tells is so engaging that the brain becomes an intriguing character. Before being carved into pieces, Einstein's brain served as a still-life for a portrait, as commissioned by Harvey. Through the years, the brain would accompany Harvey through different states, various jobs and three failed marriages. It was analyzed by neuroscientists and subjected to controversial studies. To this day, debates persist about how the brain has been used by the scientific community and about the restricted access to it.

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