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 because they remind worshippers 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 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 are a means of venerating great people, or researching them allowed scientists to further their research, or were a keepsake between friends. But one of the greatest minds to have ever lived did not want his remains studied or displayed because he was aware of the public’s macabre fascination with celebrity and he didn’t want his remains to be worshipped.
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 17th, 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 microscopic slides. He eventually lost his job because of this scandal, but for whatever reason 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 and he didn’t want his remains to be worshipped, because he was conscious of the public’s obsession with celebrity. 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. 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.
Antonio Scarpa (1752 – 1832) was an Italian anatomist and professor who was recognized for his observations on structures of the ear and nose; was the first to accurately depict the heart’s nerves and to show cardiac innervation; described the cellular structure of bone, along with 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 erectedin 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, and anatomical specimens of these body parts were made. Scarpa’s head is displayed as a memento in the Museo per la storia dell’Università di Pavia.
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 sentenced to imprisonment 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 from his body. Galileo was reburied in a prominent marble tomb and monument in the chapel of the Basilica. Galileo’s middle finger is now displayed in an egg-shaped reliquary in the collection at the Galileo Museum, a museum of science in Florence.
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 12th, 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.
Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) was one of the most prolific inventors in American history, who was famous for inventing 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.
According to legend, Ford asked Thomas Edison’s son Charles to sit by the dying inventor’s bedside and hold a test tube next to his father’s mouth to catch his final breath so that he could reanimate Edison. The test tube disappeared until 1950, when the Henry Ford Museum received a lot of hundreds of items from the estate after Henry Ford’s wife, Clara, passed away. The museum staff eventually 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.
Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was a Serbian American 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 7th, 1943, Tesla, died alone in Room 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel at the age of 86. The Nikola Tesla Museum was founded in 1952 in Belgrade, Serbia to honor the life and work of Nikola Tesla. In the third room of the museum, Tesla’s ashes reside in a gold-plated spherical urn on a marble pedestal. After his death in 1943, Tesla was cremated, and his remains were moved to Belgrade in 1957. 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.
Annetta Black, littlebrumble, Dylan, Allison. (2014). Edison’s Last Breath At The Henry Ford Museum. Retrieved on April 27, 2014 from: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/edisons-last-breath-henry-ford-museum
French, M. (2014 March 4). Nikola Tesla’s ashes spark row between Serbian scientists andOrthodox church. Retrieved on April 27, 2014 from: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/mar/04/nikola-tesla-ashes-serbian-scientists-church-belgrade
Hughes, V. (2014 April 21). The Tragic Story of How Einstein’s Brain Was Stolen and Wasn’t Even Special. Retrieved on April 27, 2014 from: http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2014/04/21/the-tragic-story-of-how-einsteins-brain-was-stolen-and-wasnt-even-special/
Onion, R. (2012 November 16). Edison’s Last Breath (Or Is It?). Retrieved on April 27, 2014 from: http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_vault/2012/11/16/edison_s_last_breath_did_henry_ford_ask_edison_s_son_to_catch_it_in_a_test.html
A version of this story also appeared on Atlas Obscura: STOLEN BRAINS AND LAST BREATHS: 6 RELICS OF SCIENCE