Since the days of Hippocrates, philosophers and scholars have been arguing over how the brain houses an intangible human spirit. St. Augustine was convinced that the soul lodged in the fluid-filled cavity of the organ's middle ventricle. Galen, the ancient pioneer of medicine, argued that vital spirits resided in the fourth ventricle.
When modern scientists discovered that intellect could be traced to neural tissues, brains became precious curios. Pathologists collected the brains of gifted musicians, scientists and other notables the way 18th century literary enthusiasts held onto the hearts of poets such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron.
Russia's Soviet revolution, had a brain weighing about 3 pounds, they determined. The brain of writer Ivan Turgenev weighed 4.4 pounds. That of satirist Anatole France was 2.1 pounds.
At Princeton Hospital, Harvey weighed Einstein's brain on a grocer's scale. It was 2.7 pounds — less than the average adult male brain.
He had the fragile organ infused with fixative and dissected it into 240 pieces, each containing about two teaspoons of cerebral tissue. He shaved off 1,000 hair-thin slivers to be mounted on microscope slides for study.
For years, Harvey agonized over how next to proceed. His odd pursuit inspired two books: "Possessing Genius" by Carolyn Abraham and "Driving Mr. Albert" by Michael Paterniti. Through the decades, however, he drifted in obscurity.
Finally in 1985, pioneering neuroanatomist Marion Diamond at UC Berkeley persuaded him to part with four small plugs of brain tissue. Diamond discovered that the physicist's brain had more cells servicing, supporting and nurturing each neuron than did 11 other brains she studied. These unusual cells were in a region associated with mathematical and language skills.
When they published their findings, the researchers speculated that these neurons might help explain Einstein's "unusual conceptual powers."
Critics contended the study was riddled with flaws, its findings meaningless.
Eventually, Harvey mailed bits of Einstein's motor cortex to a researcher at the University of Alabama, who reported that the cortex appeared to be thinner than normal but with more tightly packed neurons.
Had it simply been compacted by time and storage conditions?
DNA testing revealed nothing. The preservative fluids apparently had scrambled Einstein's genetic code.
Then in 1995, Harvey happened across Witelson's work. He read her research paper on gender differences and neuron density in the Journal of Neuroscience.
"It was impressive," he recalled. He was even more intrigued to learn about her collection of brains. He was 84, still hoping that his tissue samples had something to teach about the neural geography of genius. To make ends meet, he was working in a plastics factory. Worrying about Einstein's brain, like the years, had become a burden.
Harvey carefully packed it in the back of his battered Dodge and drove north to Witelson's laboratory. "I had the brain in a big jar," Harvey, now 94, recalled.
At midnight, he crossed over the Rainbow Bridge by Niagara Falls into Canada.
Customs officials asked if he had anything to declare. Just a brain in the trunk, he told them.
They waved him through.
Pieces Fall Into Place
Witelson could barely contain her curiosity.
COLUMN ONE | MAPPING THE MIND