The Story of Einstein’s Brain: A Japanese Professor Tracks Down the Organ in a Bizarre Documentary

The 1994 doc­u­men­tary above, Einstein’s Brain, is a curi­ous arti­fact about an even stranger rel­ic, the brain of the great physi­cist, extract­ed from his body hours after he died in 1955. The brain was dis­sect­ed, then embarked on a con­vo­lut­ed mis­ad­ven­ture, in sev­er­al pieces, across the North Amer­i­can con­ti­nent. Before Ein­stein’s Brain tells this sto­ry, it intro­duces us to our guide, Japan­ese schol­ar Ken­ji Sug­i­mo­to, who imme­di­ate­ly emerges as an eccen­tric fig­ure, wob­bling in and out of view, mum­bling awed phras­es in Japan­ese. We encounter him in a dark­ened cathe­dral, star­ing up at a back­lit stained-glass cleresto­ry, pray­ing, per­haps, though if he’s pray­ing to any­one, it’s prob­a­bly Albert Ein­stein. His first words in heav­i­ly accent­ed Eng­lish express a deep rev­er­ence for Ein­stein alone. “I love Albert Ein­stein,” he says, with reli­gious con­vic­tion, gaz­ing at a stained-glass win­dow por­trait of the sci­en­tist.

Sugimoto’s devo­tion per­fect­ly illus­trates what a Physics World arti­cle described as the cul­tur­al ele­va­tion of Ein­stein to the sta­tus of a “sec­u­lar saint.” Sug­i­mo­to’s zeal, and the rather implau­si­ble events that fol­low this open­ing, have prompt­ed many peo­ple to ques­tion the authen­tic­i­ty of his film and to accuse him of per­pe­trat­ing a hoax. Some of those crit­ics may mis­take Sugimoto’s social awk­ward­ness and wide-eyed enthu­si­asm for cred­u­lous­ness and unpro­fes­sion­al­ism, but it is worth not­ing that he is expe­ri­enced and cre­den­tialed as a pro­fes­sor in math­e­mat­ics and sci­ence his­to­ry at the Kin­ki Uni­ver­si­ty in Japan and, accord­ing to a title card, he “spent thir­ty years doc­u­ment­ing Einstein’s life and per­son.”


For a full eval­u­a­tion, see a poor­ly proof­read but very well-sourced arti­cle at “bad sci­ence blog” Deplet­ed Cra­ni­um that tells the com­plete sto­ry of Einstein’s brain, and sup­ports Sugimoto’s tale by ref­er­ence to sev­er­al accounts. Of the doc­u­men­tary, we’re told that “based on all avail­able data, the basic premise and the events shown in the doc­u­men­tary are indeed true.” In the film, Sug­i­mo­to trav­els across the U.S. in search of Dr. Thomas Har­vey, the man who orig­i­nal­ly removed Einstein’s brain at Prince­ton. (See one of the orig­i­nal pathol­o­gy pho­tos, with added labels, of the brain above). Deplet­ed Cra­ni­um con­tin­ues to set the scene as fol­lows:

Even­tu­al­ly, Sug­i­mo­to tracks down Thomas Har­vey at his home in Kansas. When he requests to see the brain, Har­vey brings out two glass jars con­tain­ing the pieces. At this point, Sug­i­mo­to makes a shock­ing request: he asks Har­vey if he could have a small piece of the brain to keep as a per­son­al memen­to. Har­vey says “I don’t see any rea­son why not” and pro­ceeds to retrieve a carv­ing knife and a cut­ting board from his kitchen. He cuts a small sec­tion from a sam­ple he iden­ti­fies as being part of Einstein’s brain stem and cere­bel­lum and gives it to Sug­i­mo­to in a small con­tain­er. In the final scene, Sug­i­mo­to cel­e­brates by tak­ing his piece of the brain to a local kereoke [sic] bar and singing a favorite Japan­ese song.

The notion that the bulk of Ein­stein’s brain would have end­ed up in a clos­et in Kansas seems strange enough. And as for Har­vey: the pathol­o­gist shopped the brain around for decades—if not for prof­it, then for notoriety—even dri­ving across the coun­try with jour­nal­ist Michael Pater­ni­ti in 1997 to deliv­er a large por­tion of the brain to Dr. San­dra Witel­son of McMas­ter Uni­ver­si­ty in Ontario. Pater­ni­ti doc­u­ment­ed the road trip in his book Dri­ving Mr. Albert, which appears to cor­rob­o­rate much of Sugimoto’s nar­ra­tive, though the trip may itself have been a pub­lic­i­ty stunt.

In addi­tion to the brain, Einstein’s eyes were also removed, with­out autho­riza­tion, by his oph­thal­mol­o­gist, who kept them in a safe­ty deposit box (where they pre­sum­ably remain). The entire sto­ry of Ein­stein’s remains is grue­some­ly out­landish, though one might con­sid­er it a mod­ern celebri­ty exam­ple of the cen­turies-old prac­tice of body snatch­ing. If some or all of this intrigues you, you’ll appre­ci­ate Sugimoto’s doc­u­men­tary. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the video upload is rough. It was record­ed from Swedish tele­vi­sion, has Swedish sub­ti­tles, and is gen­er­al­ly pret­ty low-res. How­ev­er, as a title card at the open­ing tells us, “due to the extreme­ly lim­it­ed avail­abil­i­ty of this doc­u­men­tary, this will have to suf­fice until a copy of high­er qual­i­ty ris­es to the sur­face.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Albert Ein­stein Impos­es on His First Wife a Cru­el List of Mar­i­tal Demands

The Musi­cal Mind of Albert Ein­stein: Great Physi­cist, Ama­teur Vio­lin­ist and Devo­tee of Mozart

Ein­stein Doc­u­men­tary Offers A Reveal­ing Por­trait of the Great 20th Cen­tu­ry Sci­en­tist

Ein­stein for the Mass­es: Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Presents a Primer on the Great Physicist’s Think­ing

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (4) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (4)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Scott says:

    It seems odd, if not grue­some to keep body parts as revered keep­sakes, but the Catholic church and oth­er reli­gions have done it through­out time. Sim­i­lar sou­venirs have been kept of oth­er great men — the head of the great Semi­nole Indi­an chief Osce­o­la was sup­pos­ed­ly kept by the mil­i­tary offi­cer who cap­tured him. Ein­stein is like a reli­gious fig­ure to the sec­u­lar world, although I doubt that any­one thought that pos­ses­sion of his brain impart­ed genius to the pos­ses­sor. Now that we have much more under­stand­ing of the human brain, I would be inter­est­ed in know­ing what today’s sci­en­tists might learn from study­ing Ein­stein’s brain.

  • Mike says:

    Actu­al­ly, Pater­ni­ti and Dr. Har­vey road-tripped to Cal­i­for­nia, where Dr. Har­vey met with Eve­lyn, Ein­stein’s grand­daugh­ter (or maybe his ille­git­i­mate daugh­ter, if you enjoy con­spir­a­cies). Inter­est­ing book full of bizarre sto­ries, din­ner with beat poet Allen Gins­berg being only one exam­ple.

  • Mike says:

    Grrr… I cor­rect­ed your arti­cle and intro­duced anoth­er error myself (go fig­ure!)

    The din­ner described in the book is not with Gins­berg (“Howl”); they have din­ner with beat poet William Bur­roughs, writer of“Naked Lunch,” who at one time was Dr. Har­vey’s neigh­bor in Lawrence, KS

    (.… i hate when i do that)

  • Lucinda Martinez says:

    This was an excit­ing jour­ney. Thank you for the doc­u­men­ta­tion.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.