7 Famous Human Brains and Brain Collections You Can Visit
We may be biased, but we think the human brain is pretty special. All this week, mentalfloss.com is celebrating this miracle organ with a heap of brain[y] stories, lists, and videos. It all leads up to Brain Surgery Live With mental_floss, a two-hour television event that will feature—yes—live brain surgery. Hosted by Bryant Gumbel, the special airs Sunday, October 25 at 9 p.m. EST on the National Geographic Channel.
Scientists have been collecting human brains ever since the techniques to preserve them were perfected in the mid 19th century. These days, many of those collections languish in basements and back rooms—thanks to imperfect preservation, lack of funding, and the decreased need to study actual specimens in an age where we can scan the brains of living patients with sophisticated techniques.
Fortunately, a few of the world’s most interesting brains and brain collections are on view to the public. Some of these collections were amassed to study neurological issues, while others were put together in a failed attempt to correlate brain size with race, sex, and intelligence. (Despite what many scientists once thought, humans with larger brains aren’t necessarily more intelligent.) Below, seven collections to help you create your own brain-based travel itinerary:
1. EINSTEIN // MÜTTER MUSEUM
It seems fitting that you can see the brain of the man who became practically synonymous with the term during the 20th century: Albert Einstein. Since 2011, the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia has owned 46 slides of Einstein’s gray matter, stained with cresyl violet and mounted on glass slides. Neuropathologist Lucy Rorke-Adams donated them to the museum in 2011, after receiving them from a colleague in the 1970s.
Ironically, Einstein might have balked at the idea of having his brain on display. He told friends and family he wanted to be cremated after his death, so no one would “worship at his bones.” Most of his body was cremated, but the pathologist on duty during his autopsy, a man named Thomas Harvey, decided to take the brain in order to study. He wanted to see if he could find any kind of neuroanatomical evidence of what make Einstein so brilliant. (Einstein’s family was furious, and Harvey only received retroactive permission to keep the brain for scientific analysis. He’s frequently been portrayed as a thief, but pathologists at the time often saved organs from autopsies.) Since then, it’s been a long, strange trip—and the research about whether Einstein’s brain had anything to do with his intelligence is still inconclusive. (Later this week we'll talk to Dean Falk, a researcher who studied Einstein's brain, about the evolution of the human brain.)
2. PAUL BROCA’S SPECIMENS // MUSÉE DUPUYTREN
The Musée Dupuytren in Paris’ Latin Quarter is crammed to the ceiling with hundreds of skeletons, wax moulages of skin diseases, and organs floating in glass jars. It’s also home to two of the most famous brain specimens in the history of science.
In 1861, the eminent French surgeon and anthropologist Paul Broca was the first to prove the doctrine of cerebral localization—the idea that a particular part of the brain could be responsible for a particular function. Broca’s autopsies on two aphasic patients, a Mr. Leborgne and a Mr. Lelong, showed a link between lesions in the third convolution of the left frontal lobes and speech loss (patients with the lesions couldn’t form articulate speech, but only repeat a few basic words or syllables). Broca’s research paved the way for modern neuroscience, and the speech production center of the brain is now named Broca’s Area.
Today the brains of Leborgne and Lelong sit alongside the other eerie anatomical oddities at the Musée Dupuytren, housed in what was once a 15th-century refectory. Even Broca’s own brain is sometimes said to be inside the museum, but staff claim that’s not the case; the whereabouts of the scientist’s own brain seem to be something of a mystery. For now, visitors have to be content with seeing the brains of his most famous patients.
3. CHARLES BABBAGE // LONDON (TWO LOCATIONS)
Babbage's brain at the Science Museum in London. Image credit: Anne-Lise Heinrichs, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
English mathematician, inventor, and engineer Charles Babbage is often credited as the “father of the computer”—his Difference Engine No.1, invented in 1821, was the first successful automatic calculator, and his later “analytical engines” shared characteristics with today’s computers. Babbage is also frequently remembered for his work with Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, who some consider the first computer programmer.
Always a forward-thinker, Babbage also donated his brain to science. Today it’s on display in two places in London: half is at the Science Museum, and the other half at the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons. You can see a video of it here.
4. CORNELL BRAIN COLLECTION
The Cornell Brain Collection was assembled by the noted anatomist Burt Green Wilder, creator of Cornell University’s anatomy department and founder, in 1889, of the Cornell Brain Society, devoted to collecting the brains of "educated and orderly persons.” Wilder hoped to show how such brains differed from those of criminals, minorities, the mentally ill, and women. Research showed they didn’t—at least not in ways observable by 19th-century technology.
At its peak, the collection included hundreds of specimens. Today, while 70 unidentified brains are housed in a Cornell basement, eight identified specimens are on display at the university’s Uris Hall alongside text explaining their biographies. Notable items include the brain of Helen Hamilton Gardener, an author, activist, and civil servant who donated her brain intending to prove that women were just as intelligent as men—and that their brains could be just as big.
Wilder even donated his own brain to the collection, and it remains on display. Also on view: the brain of murderer Edward H. Rulloff, turned a minty green thanks to poor preservation techniques.
5. CUSHING CENTER BRAIN TUMOR REGISTRY
For decades, the brains in Yale’s Cushing Center collection languished in the basement of the Harkness Dormitory, where breaking in to see them was a ritual among medical students. Today, the brains sit in a well-appointed display that cost $1.5 million to create—a somewhat rare concentration of resources for a brain collection, which these days often stay hidden in storage rooms.
The brains were collected by Dr. Harvey Cushing, a neuroscience professor at Yale and a pioneer of modern neurosurgery, who willed them to the school upon his death. The most famous specimen belonged to Leonard Wood, who served as the personal physician to two presidents as well as Army Chief of Staff. Cushing successfully removed a large tumor from Wood’s brain in 1910, ending his seizures—one of the few such successful operations at the time. Sadly, Wood died in 1927 after an operation to remove a second tumor.
The brains are also notable for being displayed with before-and-after photos of the patients—less harrowing and more fascinating than they sound. Cushing’s journals, surgical instruments, and other specimens complete the exhibit.
6. PERU BRAIN MUSEUM
The little-known Brain Museum at the Institute of Neurological Science in Lima, Peru, contains close to 3000 specimens, many of which show the marked effects of Alzheimer’s, alcoholism, tumors, or stokes. One of the star brains belonged to someone who suffered from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, sometimes called “human mad cow disease,” and which has been caused by some tribes eating human brains as part of their funerary practices. (On the other hand, at least one tribe appears to have developed a genetic resistance to the disease thanks to its former brain-eating ways.) The museum has been collecting specimens since 1947 and is one of the few large collections of brains that’s regularly open to the public.
7. TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY EXHIBIT // NATIONAL MUSEUM OF HEALTH AND MEDICINE
The National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C. holds eight different neuroanatomical collections—but the specimens are off-limits except for researchers with an appointment. However, if brains are your thing and you don’t have a PhD., you can still check out the museum’s Traumatic Brain Injury exhibit, which is open to the public. The exhibit features 30 specimens with a host of brain damage, including hemorrhages, blunt force trauma, and bullet wounds, as well as the surgical tools used to treat said injuries. It sounds fascinating, but maybe don’t visit right after lunch.