Death, consent, and Einstein
Death and taxes, the two constants of the world. I think some people are afraid of death because it’s so common, so… pedestrian. We all do it, wealthy, poor, unlike almost everything about life, death is the great equalizer. In life we are taught we have choices and those choices are set by our circumstances, but for the most part we get to decide what our lives look like. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case when we die, even when our wishes are made explicit. This is the true story of the death of Albert Einstein and if you don’t know it, I don’t blame you if you don’t believe it.
Einstein was a genius. I don’t think anyone would disagree, he may not have been an objectively good person (lots of cheating, like a lot), but his contributions to science were immense and he was as big of a celebrity while he was alive as any rockstar living today. People flocked to him, in essence worshipped him, and he was even asked to be the President of Israel. But this story isn’t about his life, it’s about his death.
Einstein didn’t want to be remembered like most people do. He didn’t want a grave for people to journey and idolize. So he made his wishes very clear to his family, he wished to be cremated. In 1955 he suffered an aortic aneurysm and refused surgery. If it was his time to go he wanted to die when it was his time and I quote, “I will do it elegantly.” And thus without much fanfare he passed away and that is where our story starts.
The autopsy revealed that he had hardening arteries, he had a ice cream habit and was a smoker, between the two, that was what probably did him in. The pathologist, named Thomas Stoltz Harvey then did something that made history, although arguably not in the good way. He removed Einstein’s brain and eyes to preserve. Why his eyes you may ask? Well interestingly, as the story goes, Einstein’s optometrist, Dr. Henry Abrams loved the man’s eyes. Be it guilt or fear, Harvey decided to gift them to Abrams, but he kept the brain himself and started a cross country trek to find out what made Einstein the man he was.
Harvey decided to have the brain sliced and preserved with the best technology at the time. They took measurements, did tests, and there were some slight anomalies, but nothing that would obviously explain the genius that Einstein possessed. Harvey wasn’t a trained neurologist, but for four decades he was the guardian of the brain and all the pieces that remained of it. When the military tried to obtain it to study it, he even turned them down saying Einstein was a pacifist.
Personally, the full story is so strange, you would be hard pressed to write fiction about it. In the end Harvey was cautious and guarded. He let precious few people handle the slides he had made and even Einstein’s family was hard pressed to have the curious jelly returned to them. Which highlights just how hard it is to have your body handled with as you wished when you’re no longer in possession of it.
The weirdest part of the story is that near the end a fan of Einstein from Japan I believe, made the long journey to Harvey and asked to obtain a piece of the brain. Because it was not completely turned to slides, there were still whole pieces that Harvey was carrying around. This one decision, to keep the brain must have weighed heavy on him and after so long he unceremoniously took a knife, cut a slice of it, and gave it to this person. As far as I know he’s still in possession of it to this day.
Three pounds. The average human brain weighs three pounds (~1.3 Kg), but it must have felt far heavier for Harvey. It ended up being a curse for the man, who lost his job, got divorced, lost his license and had to work at an assembly line job in a plastics factory. Some or all of this may have been related to the taking of the brain. What possessed him to go against the wishes of the family and, in fact, Einstein himself, we’ll never really understand. The saddest part of the story is that it basically ruined his life and we learned nothing of value from the brain. In the end, two years or so after Havey’s death in 2007 the brain slices exchanged hands a few times before ending up at Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.
There are several books that do a much better job detailing the journey and the odd twists and turns. My personal favorite is a bit dated (2004), but titled, “Possessing Genius: The Bizarre Odyssey of Einstein’s Brain” by Carolyn Abraham and I highly recommend it if you want to learn more about this story. After reading, you won’t believe it, but I promise it’s true.
Death is a tricky subject. We all do it, but we all want to live too. When we die we rely on others to handle our body as we wish. It’s the ultimate act of trust, but so many of us are resigned to live that we forget to plan for our final destination. This story is a reminder that even when you make your wishes explicit, they may not always be carried out. It’s my hope that we all take a minute, or ideally longer, and plan for what comes after we die. Because death comes for us all eventually, and it’s important to make sure the people who love you know what to do when that day comes.