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Stolen Brains and Last Breaths: 6 Relics of Science

article-imageDetail of a memento mori tableau by Josef Scheuplein, where death visits a doctor & scientist (via Wikimedia)

The mummified bodies, body parts, and bones of holy men and women have been preserved and revered all over the world. These human remains are venerated as reminders of the life and works of the deceased, but this isn’t exclusively a religious practice.

Scientists have long been celebrated for their genius, discoveries, and inventions long after they die. The preserved relics of some famous scientists are exhibited in museums with the same reverence as the bones of any saint or martyr shown in a church. The display of these relics is a means of venerating great people, but it’s also sometimes been for research, or as a keepsake between friends. But one of the greatest scientists ever didn’t want this posthumous worship.

article-imagePhoto by Thomas Harvey of Einstein’s brain (via Wikimedia)

The brain of Nobel prize-winning physicist and all-around genius Albert Einstein (1879-1955) has been the subject of a lot of research and controversy. After Einstein died in Princeton Hospital, on April 17, 1955, Thomas Harvey, the pathologist on call, removed his brain, without the permission of Einstein or his family, within hours of his death. Harvey photographed Einstein’s brain from many angles, and sectioned it into 240 blocks, from which he made dozens of slides. He eventually lost his job because of this scandal, but Harvey was able to keep Einstein’s brain.

Brian Burrell in his book Postcards from the Brain Museum wrote that Einstein didn’t want his brain or body to be studied, because he was conscious of the public’s obsession with the celebrity of remains. But Einstein’s son, Hans Albert Einstein, reluctantly sanctioned the removal of his father’s brain, but stipulated that it should only be used for research.

In 2010, Harvey’s family gave the remains of Einstein’s brain to the National Museum of Health and Medicine, including 14 never-before-seen photographs of the brain. Recently, 46 small portions of Einstein’s brain were acquired by the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. In 2013, the thin slices, mounted on microscope slides, went on display at the museum.

article-imageDeath head of Antonio Scarpa (via Wellcome Images)

Antonio Scarpa (1752 – 1832) was an Italian anatomist and professor recognized for his observations on structures of the ear and nose. He was also the first to accurately depict the heart’s nerves and to show cardiac innervation, and he described the cellular structure of bone, along with making notes on bone growth and diseases.

Scarpa was also an extremely wealthy, arrogant man who was infamous for spreading rumors about his rivals. He was so disliked that marble statues erected in his memory were defaced. After Scarpa’s death in 1832, his assistant performed an autopsy, during which his head, thumb, index finger, and urinary tract were removed. Scarpa’s head is now displayed in the Museo per la storia dell’Università di Pavia.

article-imageGalileo’s finger (photograph by Marc Roberts)

In 1633, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was convicted of heresy for his support of heliocentrism (the observation that the Earth and planets revolve around the sun) and imprisoned for the rest of his life. After he died, Galileo was entombed in an obscure, small room at the end of a hallway at Basilica of Santa Croce in Tuscany.

In 1737, his remains were unearthed in a ceremony, during which three fingers from his right hand, a tooth, and a vertebra were removed. Galileo was then reburied in a prominent marble tomb in the chapel of the basilica. His middle finger is now displayed in an egg-shaped reliquary in the Galileo Museum in Florence.

article-imageStatue of Lazzaro Spallanzani (photograph by Sergio Barbieri)

Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729 –1799) was a biologist and physiologist who made important contributions to the experimental study of bodily functions, and animal reproduction. His research of biogenesis helped to disprove the concept of spontaneous generation — the belief that living organisms develop from nonliving matter — and paved the way for Louis Pasteur’s research.

Spallanzani died from bladder cancer on February 12, 1799, in Pavia, Italy. After his death, his bladder was removed by his colleagues so that it could be studied, and it was publicly displayed in a museum in Pavia — the same museum that has Scarpa’s head — where it remains today.

article-imageEdison’s last breath (photograph by John Kannenberg)

Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) was one of the most prolific inventors in American history, famous for his work on the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and the electric light bulb. Edison set up a laboratory complex in rural Menlo Park, New Jersey, in 1876, nicknamed “The Invention Factory,” where he employed a large staff of machinists, engineers, and physicists. Henry Ford (1863-1947) followed Edison’s career and worked for him as chief engineer, and Edison encouraged Ford’s work on the gas-powered automobile. Over the years the two developed a relationship founded on mutual respect and admiration.

As the story goes, Ford asked Thomas Edison’s son Charles to sit by the dying inventor’s bedside and hold test tubes next to his father’s mouth to catch his final breath so that he could reanimate Edison. (Charles didn’t exactly carry out the request, but there were eight test tubes in the room where Edison died that were sealed.) One of the test tubes turned up in 1951, when the Henry Ford Museum received a lot of hundreds of items after Henry Ford’s wife, Clara, passed away. The museum staff found a letter from Charles Edison to a columnist where he states that the test tube just happened to be in the room where Edison died, and that it was given to Henry Ford as a memento of Edison’s life. It’s now on display at the Henry Ford Museum. 

article-imageUrn holding Tesla’s ashes (photograph by Martin Lopatka)

Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was an inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, and physicist famous for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system. On January 7, 1943, Tesla, died alone in Room 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel at the age of 86.

After his death, Tesla was cremated, and his remains were moved to Belgrade in 1957. The Nikola Tesla Museum was founded in 1952 in Belgrade, Serbia, to honor the life and work of the scientist. In the third room of the museum, Tesla’s ashes reside in a gold-plated spherical urn on a marble pedestal. Recently a dispute erupted between Serbian scientists and the Orthodox church after it was announced that Tesla’s ashes will be reburied in Belgrade’s St Sava church this July. Serbian scientists vehemently oppose this decision because Tesla was not religious.

For more fascinating stories of forensic anthropology visit Dolly Stolze’s Strange Remains, where a version of this article also appeared

Morbid Mondays highlight macabre stories from around the world and through time, indulging in our morbid curiosity for stories from history’s darkest corners. Read more Morbid Mondays>