Albert Einstein’s Brain Traveled the Country for Decades After His Death

As a famous scientist, Albert Einstein wanted his body cremated after his death, but a rogue pathologist had other ideas during the autopsy.


Feb. 19 2024, Published 10:40 p.m. ET

Albert Einstein smoking a pipe
Source: Getty Images

Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein died in 1955, but the story of his brain has continued for years now, all because of one man who took the gray matter into his own hands and kept it for decades, even crossing state lines with the brain. What happened to Einstein’s brain?

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Believe it or not, it was the pathologist who conducted Einstein’s autopsy who just took the brain without permission, as detailed in last year’s documentary film The Man Who Stole Einstein’s Brain.

Einstein’s brain was “stolen” by pathologist Thomas Harvey.

After Einstein died at New Jersey’s Prince Hospital in the early morning of April 18, 1955, pathologist Thomas Harvey concluded that the famed scientist had died of an abdominal aortic aneurysm, as history writer Matt Blitz covered in Smithsonian Magazine 60 years later. But what Harvey did next “has been the subject of great controversy over the last half-century,” Blitz added. “Quite simply, Harvey took Einstein’s brain without permission, which some would call ‘stealing.’”

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Albert Einstein smiling
Source: Getty Images

Einstein wanted his remains cremated and his ashes scattered secretly — because he didn’t want people worshipping him after his death. Harvey didn’t have a legal right to keep the professor’s brain, as Brian Burrell wrote in Postcards from the Brain Museum: The Improbable Search for Meaning in the Matter of Famous Minds (via an NPR excerpt).

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“When the fact came to light a few days later, Harvey managed to solicit a reluctant and retroactive blessing from Einstein's son, Hans Albert, with the now-familiar stipulation that any investigation would be conducted solely in the interest of science, and that any results would be published in reputable scientific journals,” Burrell added.

Harvey kept Einstein’s brain for decades.

Months after Einstein’s death, Princeton Hospital fired Harvey for refusing to hand over the brain, Burrell wrote. Harvey had the brain segmented into more than 200 pieces, some of which he had put into slides for microscope inspection. After Harvey’s marriage deteriorated, he moved the brain and himself to Wichita, Kan., then Weston, Mo., then Lawrence, Kan., then back to New Jersey. He considered giving the brain to one of Einstein's granddaughters in the early 1990s, according to the book.

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Along the way, Harvey lost his medical license after failing a competency exam, Burrell reported, so he got a job at a plastic-extrusion factory in Lawrence and befriended one of his neighbors, the famous beat poet William Burroughs. “Harvey would tell stories about the brain, about cutting off chunks to send to researchers around the world,” Burrell wrote. “Burroughs, in turn, would boast to visitors that he could have a piece of Einstein any time he wanted.”

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Now Einstein’s brain is on display at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia.

Harvey died in 2007 at the age of 94, per National Geographic, but that’s not even the end of the story of Einstein’s brain. In November 2011, the neuropathologist Lucy Balian Rorke-Adams offered to donate Harvey’s boxes of slides to the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, Penn. “Dr. Rourke-Adams received the box of slides from another neuropathologist, who got it from a neuropathologist, who got it from Harvey,” museum director Anna Dhody told Smithsonian Magazine.

And the slides became one of the museum’s star attractions, for which Dhody offered a simple explanation: “[Einstein] might have been worlds and worlds smarter than we will ever be, but at the end, we all have a brain.”

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