Mütter gets samples of Einstein's brain
More than five decades after the brain of Albert Einstein was preserved, partitioned, and distributed to the private collections of various hospitals and researchers, a set of the precious samples is now on public display.
On Thursday, Lucy Rorke-Adams, a prominent neuropathologist at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, donated 46 slides containing Einstein's gray matter to the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
"They are a very important part of medical history," said Rorke-Adams, 82, who received the slides from a colleague in the mid-1970s.
The ridges and valleys of this world-changing brain have held a certain popular fascination since the famous physicist died in 1955, perhaps all the more because the various samples have been out of the public eye. The brain has been the subject of a quirky documentary, a book, and a handful of research papers that sought to discern the physical underpinnings of Einstein's intellectual gifts.
By most accounts, the physician who performed the autopsy of Einstein's body, Thomas Harvey, removed the brain without permission but soon obtained the family's approval to keep it for scientific study.
Harvey, who died in 2007, kept most of the brain in his home, separated into three glass jars, and finally published a study of it in 1999. He later gave it to University Medical Center at Princeton, where he had performed the autopsy years earlier.
The slides donated by Rorke-Adams reveal a kind of medical artistry that has been lost to the past. Marta Keller, a technician at Philadelphia General Hospital, spent months slicing the tissue into thin sections so they could be preserved for posterity, Rorke-Adams said.
Some are stained to reveal individual brain cells, others to highlight the presence of myelin, the fatty material that acts as the brain's insulator. The intricate cerebral byways and undulations take on a chocolaty-brown hue when the vintage glass is held up to the light.
Robert D. Hicks, director of the Mütter Museum, said he welcomed the donation as an illustration of the scientific process.
"I'm particularly pleased that the samples were created specifically for scientific analysis," Hicks said. "If it was just a finger in a jar, that's just going to be a relic for people to come and gawk at." The slides are displayed in a wooden box behind a glass case, with one slide highlighted on a magnifying device.
The brain slides join samples of tissue from several historic figures in the Mütter's collection. Among them are a cancerous tumor removed from the mouth of President Grover Cleveland, and a piece of tissue from the neck of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.
But Einstein is now surely the headliner - so renowned for his theory of relativity and other physics achievements that his very name is synonymous with intellect.
Hicks is a big proponent of making such samples available for academic study. Recently, for example, a 150-year-old museum specimen yielded DNA from the bacteria that cause cholera, he said.
Einstein's brain has already been subjected to scientific analysis. Among other findings, researchers have noted that a feature of his brain called the Sylvian fissure was truncated, proposing that this might have contributed to his mental prowess.
But Rorke-Adams, who estimated she had examined 25,000 brains during her career, was unimpressed by these efforts. She said nothing was visible in Einstein's brain that would suggest unusual intelligence.
She allowed, however, that his brain cells looked quite youthful, given that Einstein was 76 when he died.
"The blood vessels are gorgeous," the pathologist said.
Rorke-Adams evidently has a good brain of her own. A 1957 graduate of the University of Minnesota Medical School, she came to Philadelphia General, a public hospital that served the poor, for her internship and residency in pathology.
She started work at Children's Hospital in 1965, but also remained on staff at Philadelphia General until it closed in 1977.
"I'm working full time and still loving it," she said. "I'm one of those lucky people who wants to get up in the morning and go to work."
Rorke-Adams, a fellow of the College of Physicians and a Mütter trustee, said she wanted to make sure the slides were safely in the hands of a museum before she dies, lest they be lost or destroyed.
Indeed, the location of other Einstein brain samples is unclear. Rorke-Adams said one set of Keller's slides went to physicians at the University of Chicago Medical Center. A spokesman there said neurologist Sidney Schulman had examined the slides and sent them back.
Another set went to Hartwig Kuhlenbeck at the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania, which became part of what is now Drexel University College of Medicine. Drexel spokeswoman Rachel Sparrow said the school does not currently own any samples of Einstein's brain.
Fittingly, yet another set of slides went to Harry Zimmerman at the school that bears Einstein's name: Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in New York. Officials there could not immediately say whether they still had the slides. Rorke-Adams' slides came from colleague Allen Steinberg, who in turn had gotten them from the widow of Philadelphia General pathologist William Ehrich.
What would the scientist himself make of all this fuss over his brain?
He was a scientist, after all, though he had no special expertise in the biology of the brain.
He nevertheless shared his thoughts on intelligence on several occasions, as recorded in a new book this year called The Ultimate Quotable Einstein.
While clearly Einstein was a man who valued his abilities, he appreciated that human intelligence has its limits. In a 1932 letter to Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, he wrote:
"We have been endowed with just enough intelligence to be able to see clearly just how utterly inadequate that intelligence is when we are confronted with what exists. If this humility could be imparted to everybody, the world of human endeavors would become more appealing."
Read more: http://www.philly.com/philly/health/20111118_Samples_of_Albert_Einstein_s_brain_on_display_at_the_Mtter_Museum.html?viewAll=y#ixzz1eDH6Yw2r
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