Digital Scavenging: The Albert Einstein Brain App

Here is an app with a Halloween twist: the Albert Einstein brain app.

I first heard about this app on the radio and couldn’t believe it was real. I decided to do some research online and came across an article called “Einstein’s Brain Goes Digital With iPad App” in Wired Science. The background story about the fate of Einstein’s brain after his death is pretty gruesome. The pathologist who performed Einstein’s autopsy stole Einstein’s brain and eyes. The pathologist then divided Einstein’s brain into sections and preserved them so the brain could be studied by other scientists. The goal of these studies was to find out if there was anything physically different about Einstein’s brain that made him a genius.

The fate of Einstein’s brain poses an ethical dilemma. Are the wishes of one dead person more important than solving a scientific mystery that could potentially benefit all of humankind? Einstein’s last wish was to be cremated. Although he participated in studies of his brain while he lived, his consent for studies of his brain after his death has been a source of dispute among researchers. The Wired Science article describes Einstein as a “man who never actually donated his brain to science,” and other sources concur with this view (see “Albert Einstein’s Brain” and “How Albert Einstein’s Brain Worked” for more information about the dispute over his consent). I read some of the comments at the end of the Wired Science article, and one of the posters did not have a problem with what happened to Einstein’s brain or with the app because the dead “should not have any rights” and forfeit their rights by dying. I don’t entirely agree with this argument. I think dead people still have some rights through their legal wills. However, their rights are only as good as the living people they appoint to execute the wishes of their will. To be fair, I do not think Einstein’s family had much control over what happened to his brain and eyes. Most people would probably not want to be present at the autopsy of a relative even if they were allowed to. Like most people in a similar situation, they trusted that the pathologist would treat Einstein’s remains with respect. Sadly, the pathologist violated that trust. At least the pathologist was fired from his job because of his refusal to give back what he stole. (He claimed he obtained permission from Einstein’s son to keep them after the fact.)

While I don’t condone what the pathologist did, I can sort of understand why he stole Einstein’s brain. The thought of the brain of a genius and one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century literally going up in smoke overwhelmed him. Einstein’s brain could possibly hold the key to understanding the source of genius. The pathologist seemed to be motivated by intellectual curiosity rather than financial gain. He did not try to sell the specimens of Einstein’s brain. According to the Wired Science article, he kept most of the specimens and donated a few of them to museums and researchers. However, stealing is still stealing even if it is for a higher purpose.

While the article rationalizes the pathologist’s actions as “initiative” in saving Einstein’s brain so that it can be seen by future generations, I think the app extends rather than mends the pathologist’s wrongdoing of the past. Making money off the images of a stolen body part is almost like robbing a grave. When I was in college, I read a Charles Dickens novel that featured characters who made a living dredging the Thames for suicides and other dead people and taking any valuables the dead people had on them. I now see that this scavenging instinct is still alive and well in the present day. Only now people have high-tech tools to do their dirty work.

One other aspect of this article that disturbs me is the prediction that “there will be another Einstein, and when that individual dies, we’ll be prepared (we’re hanging on for that 3D-mapped interactive specimen).” What will happen to that person? Will that person be exploited too regardless of his or her last wishes?

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