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Driving Mr. Albert

A Trip Across America With Einstein's Brain

by Michael Paterniti

Hardcover, 211 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $18.95 |


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Driving Mr. Albert
A Trip Across America With Einstein's Brain
Michael Paterniti

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Book Summary

Part travelogue, part memoir, this unique book follows an 84-year-old pathologist across the country as the country with Einstein's brain in Tupperware bowl filled with formaldehyde.

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Tiny metal electrodes are attached to Albert Einstein's head to pick up impulses from his brain and to magnify and record them for study in 1950 in Princeton, N.J. Dr. Alejandro Arellano kneels beside him. AP/NAP hide caption

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Einstein's Brain Unlocks Some Mysteries Of The Mind

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Driving Mr. Albert


On a cold winter day, during one of my early visits to Dr. Harvey, we drovearound Princeton, making the obligatory pilgrimage to 112 Mercer Street, thehouse where Einstein spent the last twenty years of his life. We sat for awhilewith the car running, warm air pouring from the heater, gazing at a modestwood-frame colonial with black shutters on a pleasant block of like houses.More than anything, Einstein said he loved the old place for the light thatfilled the upstairs rooms and for the gardens out back. He kept pictures ofMichaelangelo and Schopenhauer hanging in his study, because, as he said, bothmen had escaped an everyday life of raw monotony and taken "refuge in a worldcrowded with images of our own creation."

Sitting in the car, Thomas Harvey recalled hoew the Einstein family gatheredhere after the scientist's death, how his son, Hans Albert, and Einstein'slongtime assistant, Helen Dukas, and Einstein's executor, Otto Nathan, as wellas a small group of intimates, drove to a secret spot along the Delaware andscattered the ashes that remained of Albert Einstein's body, And that was it.

Not surprsingly, however, controversy immediately enshrouded the removal ofEinstein's brain. Word was leaked by Harvey's former teacher Dr. Zimmerman thatHarvey had Einstein's brain, and that he, Zimmerman, was expecting to receive itfrom his student. When this was reported in The New York Times a dayafter Einstein's death, Hans Albert, who knew nothing of his father's brainhaving been removed, was flabbergasted. Otto Nathan expressed regret and shock,and later implied that Harvey was a bald-faced thief. But, according to Harvey,Nathan, who died in 1984, stood by the door of the morgue, watching the entireautopsy. (Nathan would later claim he didn't know what Harvey was up to.)

Meanwhile, Harvey announced in a press conference that he was planning toconduct medical research on the brain. He says he spoke to Hans Albert over thephone, assuring him the brain would be studied for its scientific value, whichwould then be reported in a medical journal, thus allaying one of the deepestfears of the Einstein family: that the brain would becom a pop-cultural gewgaw."My one regret is that I didn't come to Mercer Street and talk to Hans Albert inperson," Harvey told me that day. "You know, clear things up before it got outof hand."

But things were already out of hand. Zimmerman, then on staff at New York'sMontefiore Medical Center, prepared for the delivery of Einstein's brain, but itnever arrived. Increasingly flummoxed, then angry and embarrassed, Zimmermanfound out that Princeton Hospital, under the direction of a man named JohnKauffman, had decided not to relinquish it. "Hospitals Tiff over Brain ofEinstein," read one 1955 headline, and went on to describe how the brainremained at "the center of a jurisdictional dispute," with Princeton Hospitalstanding its ground, like an old-time gunfighter, claiming "the brain wouldn'tbe taken out of town."

But then, a few years after the autopsy, Harvey was fired from his job forallegedly refusing to give up Einstein's brain to Kauffman. In fact, Harvey hadkept the brain himself, not at the hospital, but at home, and when he leftPrinceton he simply took it with him. Years passed. There were no studies orfindings. And, in turn, no legal action was brought against Harvey, as therewas no precedence in the courts for the recovery of a brain under suchcircumstances. And then Harvey fell off the radar screen. When he gave anoccasional interview—in local newspaper articles from 1956 and 1979 and1988—he always repeated that he was about "a year from finishing study on thespecimen."

Four decades later, there's still no study. And because somewhere in his wateryblue eyes, his genial stumble-footing, and that ineffable cloak of hunchedintegrity that falls over the old, I find myself feeling for him and can't bringmyself to ask the essential questions: Is he a grave-robbing thief or arenegade? A sham or a shaman?

Copyright © 2000 Michael Paterniti. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-385-33300-5