2012: A freezer malfunction at a research hospital associated with Harvard University has compromised some 54 brains being held there in connection with an autism study. The oldest “brain bank” in the country, the facility is undertaking an investigation to determine why alarms didn’t go off as temperatures in the freezers rose. The New York Daily News reports:
The director of the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center said the loss was “devastating,” particularly in light of the increasing demand for brain samples among scientists searching for the cause of autism and potential treatments.
“Over the last 10 years, the autism tissue program has been working very hard to get the autism community to understand the importance of brain donation,” Dr. Francine Benes said. Now many of those samples have been compromised.
The freezer failed sometime late last month at the center, which is housed at McLean Hospital in the Boston suburb of Belmont. At least 54 samples earmarked for autism research were harmed. Many of them turned dark with decay.
1889: The brain of poet, journalist, and phrenology aficionado Walt Whitman was removed from his skull, post-mortem, against the wishes of his brother and heir. Whitman’s brain was ferried across the Delaware river to a Philadelphia laboratory, where it was to be examined by “elite brain expert” Edward Anthony Spitzka, an alienist interested in the idea that brains of intellectual men might look different than ordinary grey matter. Alas, Spitzka never got the chance to look at Whitman’s brain—it was dropped by a laboratory assistant and damaged beyond repair. Or was it? An article in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review suggests another chain of events:
The loss of Walt Whitman’s brain has thus far defied all attempts at simple explanation. It didn’t make sense. Spitzka, of all people, would have known that a hardened brain would not easily break into pieces; that even if damaged, it would still be of scientific use. His choice of words didn’t help. The brain “was said to have been dropped.” By whom? And where? Spitzka placed the blame on a “careless assistant in the laboratory.”
A few years later, Whitman’s friend William Sloane Kennedy contacted Professor Herbert T. Harned, the son of Thomas Harned, to see if he could learn anything new. After making some inquiries, Harned informed Kennedy that the brain “was destroyed either during the autopsy or while being conveyed to the jar, or in the jar before the hardening process by formaldehyde had been completed.” He cited an unimpeachable source, Henry Donaldson, a highly respected physiologist and the research director of Philadelphia’s Wister Institute of Anatomy and Biology, where the brain would have come to reside had it survived.
According to Harned, “Dr. Donaldson looked the matter up in the files of the Wister Institute, and told me that the records state quite definitely that the brain was accidentally broken to bits during the pickling process.”
Canadian subscribers add $10; All other international subscribers add $40.