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3 Strange Cases of Missing Brains

What do the brains of Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy and deceased patients of the Texas state mental hospital have in common?
Brains of famous people missing

Brains on the side of the road? Residents of a village in New York were alarmed to discover nine brains along the street last week. An examination by a veterinarian determined the brains were most likely those of dogs or sheep, and noted that one had been professionally preserved in formaldehyde.

According to the report, “Mishaps with preserved brains are not uncommon.

I’m sure many of you in the Cult of Weird community would agree that a spectacularly abnormal brain in a jar, or one whose neurons once fired inside the skull of a famous person, would make a great addition to the collection. But beyond that, what if you had access to a brain that could change our understanding of human consciousness? Or alter the course of world events?

Einstein’s Brain Stolen During Autopsy

Vintage photo of Einstein's brain from 1955
Einstein’s brain

If you had the opportunity to find out what made Einstein so special, could you pass it up? Pathologist Thomas Harvey decided he could not.

Harvey just happened to be on call at Princeton Hospital on April 18th, 1955 when the Nobel prize-winning physicist passed away. Einstein wanted his body cremated and scattered in a secret location. When Harvey found himself alone in the morgue with the opportunity to find out what made the genius tick, however, he decided he could not let that happen.

So Harvey stole Einstein’s brain.

He eventually obtained permission to keep it and study it, determining that it was indeed not normal.

Slices of it can be seen at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia.

Brains Missing from the University of Texas

Smooth brain specimen from Malformed
Smooth brain specimen from the University of Texas collection. Photo by Adam Voorhees.

The University of Texas State Mental Hospital was home to an extremely rare collection of unusual brains taken from deceased patients of the Austin State Hospital, formerly the Texas State Lunatic Asylum, as far back as the 1950s. When Adam Voorhees and Alex Hannaford began documenting the collection for their book Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital, they discovered many of the specimens were missing.

The university eventually released a statement that the missing brains were destroyed in 2002 during a routine disposal of biological waste.

JFK’s Missing Brain

Bullet fragments seen in x-ray of John F. Kennedy's brain
X-ray shows bullet fragments in JFK’s brain

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. During the autopsy, his damaged brain was removed and stored in the National Archives. In 1966, it was discovered that Kennedy’s brain was missing. No one knows where it went, why it was taken, or the whereabouts of the organ today.

The fate of JFK’s brain remains a mystery.

Weird Book Club Recommended Reading

Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital

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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