“I Want You To Find Einstein’s Brain”

Albert Einstein deservedly wrested the “greatest Jew since Jesus” title from the far inferior Leon Trotsky, but having such a beautiful mind came with costs, and it’s been well-documented that the scientist’s brain had a bumpy life of his own after his passing in 1955. Steven Levy, the best tech reporter of the personal-computing era, located the great man’s gray matter, in 1978, for New Jersey Monthly. He recalls the strange reconnaissance mission in the Backchannel piece “Yes, I Found Einstein’s Brain“:

The reporters who by then had heard of the news and begun gathering in Princeton did not have access to the body. According to his wishes, Einstein’s body was incinerated. The cremation took place at 4:30 that day in Trenton. Nathan disposed of the ashes in the Delaware River.

But not all of the body was cremated. According to an article in the New York Times that ran on April 20, the brain was saved for study. The headline was “KEY CLUE SOUGHT IN EINSTEIN BRAIN.” That article was the last piece of actual news regarding Einstein’s brain that would appear for over 20 years.

The next piece of news would come from me.

“I want you to find Einstein’s brain.”

My editor was giving me the weirdest assignment in my young career. It was the late spring of 1978. I was working for a regional magazine calledNew Jersey Monthly, based in Princeton, New Jersey. It was my first real job. I was 27 years old and had been a journalist for three years.

The editor, a recent hire named Michael Aron, had come to New Jersey with a white whale of a story idea, one that he once had begun himself but gotten nowhere on. Years earlier, he had put together a package at Harper’smagazine on brain science. He had read Ronald Clark’s magisterial biography of Albert Einstein, and had been fascinated by one phrase at the end.

“He had insisted his brain be used for research…”

What had happened to the brain? Aron wondered. He had seen that April 20New York Times article. But that seemed to be the last mention of the brain. He looked at all sorts of indexes of publications and journals for any hint of a study and couldn’t find a thing. He wrote to Ronald Clark; the biographer didn’t know. Clark referred Aron to Nathan, the executor of the estate. Nathan’s prompt response was a single terse paragraph. He confirmed that the brain had been removed during the autopsy, and the person performing the procedure had been a pathologist named Thomas Harvey. “As far as I know,” Nathan wrote, “he is no longer with the hospital.” And that was it. Aron had hit a dead end.

But Aron never gave up on the idea, and when he got to New Jersey — where Einstein had lived and died, right there in Princeton — he immediately assigned me the story. He scheduled it for our August cover story. It was late spring. I had about a month.

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