Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital

By on April 7, 2015

What happened to the rare, malformed brain specimens missing from the Texas State Mental Hospital?
Malformed documents the rare brain collection of the Texas State Mental Hospital
A rare, smooth brain specimen documented by photographer Adam Voorhees in Malformed

Remember the reports last year that a collection of rare brains taken from deceased patients of a mental hospital in Austin, Texas had gone missing? The bizarre discovery was unearthed by photographer Adam Voorhees and journalist Alex Hannaford while they were attempting to document the collection.

In their new book Malformed, Adam’s stunning photos of the specimens remaining in the collection are combined with the details of their research to tell the story of the unique collection.

Hidden away out of sight in a forgotten storage closet deep within the bowels of the University of Texas State Mental Hospital languished a forgotten, but unique and exceptional, collection of 100 extremely rare, malformed, or damaged human brains preserved in jars of formaldehyde.

Decades later, in 2011, photographer Adam Voorhes discovered the brains and became obsessed with documenting them in close-up, high-resolution, large format photographs, revealing their oddities, textures, and otherworldly essence. Voorhes donned a respirator and chemical gloves, and began the painstaking process of photographing the collection. Desperate to know more about the provenance of the brains, Voorhes, together with journalist Alex Hannaford, traveled down the rabbit hole of the collection’s history.

Sifting through a century’s worth of university documents, the truth-seekers discovered that rival universities had bitterly fought over the collection. But after winning the “Battle for the Brains” (against Harvard University among others) the University of Texas at Austin secured the collection. Now, however, the collection has been reduced to half its original size and is in a state of neglect. Voorhes and Hannaford’s hunt for the medical records became a hunt for the missing brains, but with no scientific or medical documents to pair with the body of photographs, Alex began following the trail to the researchers who had worked with them and the caretakers in whose trust they were placed. The result of the duo’s efforts has been a revived interest in the collection with various science journals publishing writings and research about the brains. And the university is now creating MRI scans of the specimens and intends to showcase them at its new medical school. Alas, for now, the hunt for the missing brains seems to be far from over.

Brain from the Texas State Mental Hospital collection. Photo by Adam Voorhees.

Brain from the Texas State Mental Hospital collection. Photo by Adam Voorhees.

Brain from the Texas State Mental Hospital collection. Photo by Adam Voorhees.

Brain from the Texas State Mental Hospital collection. Photo by Adam Voorhees.

Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital by Adam Voorhees and Alex HannafordMalformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital

Malformed, from photographer Adam Voorhees and journalist Alex Hannaford, documents the strange collection of brains in jars taken from mental patients, and documents the unusual circumstances surrounding the disappearance of many of the original specimens. Where are these bizarre, forgotten brains, and who did they belong to?

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