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Exploring Einstein's Brain

The most highly-prized brain in Princeton does not belong to a University student, or even a professor. It sits inside two glass cookie jars in Princeton Medical Center on Witherspoon Street. And a thought hasn't crossed its mind in 45 years.

In two quart-size jars filled with alcohol in the PMC office of Dr. Elliot Krauss float chunks of the brain of Albert Einstein, the noted physicist who was named Time Magazine's Man of the Century for his revolutionary theory of relativity.


Krauss received the brain from Dr. Thomas Stoltz Harvey, the Yale-educated pathologist who performed Einstein's autopsy in 1955.

Following the autopsy, Harvey removed the brain, took it home, stored it in beer coolers and cookie jars and later transported it cross-country in the trunk of a Buick Skylark.

His bizarre road trip is the subject of a new nonfiction book by Michael Paterniti, titled "Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America With Einstein's Brain."

Paterniti, a young journalist who won a 1998 National Magazine Award for feature writing, chauffeured Harvey in his rented Buick on the journey from Harvey's ranch home in Titusville, just outside of Princeton, to Berkeley, Calif.


Forty-five years later, Harvey doesn't have a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. There are no gates around his home. And most would still ask, "Who?" at the mention of his name.

Harvey's lifestyle these days is meek. Up a winding gravel road lined with wheat fields, hidden by overgrown trees, sits his two-story house. Nailed to a tree at the base of his driveway is an unassuming, white hexagonal sign that reads "HARVEY/WHEATLEY/144."


Dressed in a beige sweater vest, a blue button-down shirt, khaki pants, woolen socks and brown Wallabees, Harvey looks more lively than an average 87-year-old.

When questioned about his motives for keeping the brain for so many years, Harvey changes the subject.

"Way-ell," he says with a Midwestern drawl and husky chuckle. He swallows hard and stares through brown-trimmed glasses with thoughtful gray eyes, weighing each word as carefully as he weighed Einstein's brain nearly half-a-century ago. One can almost imagine the wheels turning in his head.

"I think it was the right thing to do," Harvey said in an interview last week as a large white fluffy cat stretched its legs and curled up in the cushion of an antique chair in his living room. "I would have been ashamed if I hadn't taken it."

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Over the years, Harvey distributed pieces to neurologists who were seeking the source of Einstein's genius.

Dr. Britt Anderson, a neurologist at the University of Alabama, found an unusually thin cortex in Einstein's brain, signifying a high density of neurons.

In the most widely known paper about the physicist's brain, Dr. Marian Diamond, a neuoranatomist at the University of California-Berkeley, found an unusual number of glial cells, which nourish the brain.

And recently, a Canadian neurologist, Dr. Sandra Witelson, found that Einstein's inferior parietal lobe - the area that controls mathematical and spatial reasoning - was 15 percent larger than average, but that his Sylvian fissure was smaller than average.

However, Harvey never published a research paper himself.

"I wasn't at any one time while moving in a place where I could really study the brain," he said.

Without a scientific paper to prove he had conducted research, Harvey has been criticized as a thief who pilfered the brain for personal fame.

"I think everybody was glad I kept the brain for study," he said. "I don't think anybody - well, I suppose there are some that thought it was wrong that I kept the brain at all. But it was standard procedure back then."

He denies that Einstein's relatives harbored any hard feelings toward him.

"The Einstein family called me, and I talked to them on the phone and told them how important it was to have the brain studied," Harvey said. "But there was no hostility on their part."

Dr. Harry Zimmerman - a former teacher of Harvey's and the man who was originally appointed to perform Einstein's autopsy - leaked to the Einsteins and the rest of the world in a New York Times article following the physicist's death that the brain would be studied.

"I think they were surprised because they didn't realize I had kept the brain," Harvey said.


Paterniti - the author of "Driving Mr. Albert" - tracked down Harvey four years ago. But the two men diverge on the question of how they decided to travel cross country. Paterniti says in his book that Harvey wanted to go to Berkeley to meet Evelyn Einstein, the granddaughter of the famed physicist. Yet Harvey claims Paterniti said he was going out to California and that he joined him to meet Diamond.

"His book is a little inaccurate," Harvey said with a chuckle, adding that after reading the book, he sent Paterniti a list of 25 errors.

The errors included the number of sons he has, where he was raised and the occupation of his second wife.

Harvey was born in Kentucky and raised in Indiana. He planned to be a general practitioner, but contracted tuberculosis during his fourth year of medical school. After leaving the sanitarium, doctors advised him to refrain from strenuous activity for at least five years. Knowing the stress and long hours of internships, Harvey decided to pursue pathology.

"Internships were pretty strenuous, but with pathology you get to sleep pretty well," he said.

After leaving Princeton Medical Center in the 1950s, Harvey moved to Metuchen, N.J., and Wichita, Kan., started a general practice in Missouri in 1970 and suffered through three divorces. After retiring in 1989, he worked for the Census Bureau in Kansas and ended up as an extruder operator for a plastics company.

Harvey returned to the East Coast in 1995 and now lives with his girlfriend, Cleora Wheatley, who was a nurse at PMC during the 1950s.


Then one day "four or five years ago," Harvey calmly strolled into Dr. Krauss' laboratory carrying two jars and asked for some alcohol to replenish the supply that was preserving the brain. Krauss said, until that day, he had wondered whether the legends surrounding the brain were true.

"Whatever happened to Einstein's brain? Well, here it is. Harvey has it," he said.

Krauss said the two became friends and would often sit and discuss their experiences with the brain.

"About two years ago, I said to him, 'It would be a shame if you were to die and it fell into the hands of someone who didn't appreciate its significance,' " Krauss said. "I asked him to consider giving the brain back to Princeton Medical Center."

Harvey said, "It was a lot of responsibility carrying the brain around. I was always getting letters from people who wanted to study the brain, and I had to decide whether these people were really interested in studying the brain or just souvenir collectors. I thought I'd turn it over to Dr. Krauss who was still young and healthy."

Krauss would not disclose where he keeps the brain but said it is under lock-and-key.

Though many would like to see Einstein's brain behind a glass case in a museum or enshrined on a pedestal, Krauss displays it on a messy desk in his first-floor office, surrounded by stacks of paper, framed photographs of his family and a single packet of Sweet 'N Low. The two brain sections are still in the same cookie jars in which Harvey delivered them - one has a glass lid, the other a wooden one.

He reaches into the broth-like alcohol solution and pulls out a gauze bag containing a handful of celloidin wedges, which encase pieces of the brain. The once-functioning brain now looks like an exotic hors-d'ouvre you might find at an expensive restaurant.

Since receiving the brain, he has had three requests for sections of the brain, two of which he granted - one from a South American group to study the cells and one from a Japanese group studying Alzheimer's disease.

Though Harvey was once offered $15,000 from an oddity collector for a single piece, Krauss said he is not interested in selling.

In fact, he has no plans for the brain except to continue waiting for requests from research groups. He further said he plans to leave the brain for the person who holds his position after he retires.

"So was this anti-climactic or cool?" Krauss asks visitors to his office. "I find it anti-climactic."