Wilder Brain Collection – Ithaca, New York - Atlas Obscura
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Wilder Brain Collection

Cornell University

This collection started by a Cornell professor once held more than 600 human brain specimens, including the one that belonged to its founder. 

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The whole human brain collection held at New York’s Cornell University was accumulated at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th by Dr. Burt Green Wilder.

Wilder was a Civil War surgeon who became Cornell’s first animal biologist and founded the school’s anatomy department. In 1889 he founded the Cornell Brain Society with the goal of gathering and studying the human brain. Wilder wanted to see if he could detect any differences between the brains of “educated and orderly persons” and women, murderers, racial minorities, and those with mental illnesses.

The collection once held more than 600 human brain specimens—perhaps as many as 1,200 if you include partial brain samples and animal brains. But due to years of neglect and their poor storage in the university basement, many of the specimens deteriorated and had to be carried out of the basement in buckets. Despite this, an effort was made to retain the most interesting brains and today the collection still contains some 70 whole human brains.

Special emphasis was made to acquire the brains of famous people. The collection includes suffragist Helen Hamilton Gardener, who donated her brain in 1925 to prove that woman’s brain was in no way inferior to a man’s, and the gray matter (or in this case, due to some discoloration, green matter) of Edward Howard Rulloff, a convicted murderer who was hanged in 1871.

Wilder himself donated his brain upon his death. Today Cornell University’s department of psychology maintains the collection. Eight brains, including the above-mentioned, are on display in Uris Hall. The other 62 are still kept in the basement.

Know Before You Go

If you enter through the North entrance, you can go one floor up the stairs or elevator, and you will see it.

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