Magazine article The New Yorker

Afterlife

Magazine article The New Yorker

Afterlife

Article excerpt

One recent afternoon, two art movers visited the Mutter Museum, at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, to prepare two thin slices of Albert Einstein's corpus callosum and temporal lobe for travel. The slides, along with six acrylic-coated brains from St. Vincent's Hospital, were due in London for an exhibit, called "Brains," at the Wellcome Collection. As the movers wrapped the St. Vincent's remains in plastic and foam, Anna Dhody, a physical anthropologist and the museum's curator, acknowledged that while the Mutter tends to all afterlives, some specimens have it better than others. Whereas the St. Vincent's brains would fly cargo, Einstein's would go in the plane's cabin. "Certain V.I.P. postmortem celebrities get to fly in their own seat," she said.

The story of why Einstein's brain can be in many places at once "would seem farcical were it not so macabre," Einstein's biographer Walter Isaacson wrote. The Nobel laureate died in Princeton in 1955. Per his wishes, his body was cremated, but first a pathologist named Thomas Harvey squirrelled away one of the twentieth century's most influential organs. Over the next four decades, Harvey doled out chunks and slices of the brain, encased in slides, to neuropathologists, hoping that they might explain the biological roots of Einstein's genius. A few hazarded theories: neurons that needed more energy, a shorter groove in the inferior parietal lobe. Lucy Rorke-Adams, a neuropathologist at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, who donated her set of forty-six slides from various parts of the brain to the Mutter late last year, posited, "Einstein's brain is that of a young person."

Because the Mutter's set of slides is the only one that can still be accounted for, these two slivers of Einstein were so valuable that they needed a courier for the flight over. The job fell to Annie Brogan, the college's librarian, who guided the art movers to Dhody's basement office. Brogan, who is in her early thirties, with a snowflake tattoo on her forearm, has handled celebrities before--she gave Kim Cattrall a private tour recently--but she is less interested in their bodies than in the books and letters they leave behind. As the movers attended to a delicate nineteenth-century French papier-mache spinal cord, Brogan, Dhody, and J Nathan Bazzel, the college's director of communications, rehearsed a millennia-old debate over which was more important, words or the brain and body that wrote them.

Unsurprisingly, Brogan sided with print. …

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