Albert Einstein’s connections to New York City are a bit more morbid than you might expect: his eyes are stored in a safety deposit box in the city. Preserving the body parts of the famous is not uncommon and New York City area has the honor of having Napoleon’s penis (in a basement in New Jersey) and George Washington’s tooth in Fraunces Tavern.
The story of Albert Einstein’s remains begins shortly after his death in 1955 at Princeton Hospital, where an illegal autopsy was performed by Thomas Harvey, the pathologist of the hospital. Harvey then sought and received a “retroactive blessing,” from Einstein’s son, Hans Albert according to the book Postcards from the Brain Museum by Brian Burrell, excerpted on NPR, with the agreement that any research done would be for scientific purposes. Throughout his life, Einstein actively avoided celebrity and idolatry using his fame only to help others (like freely signing letters knowing his signature would be sold, says Izzy Kazdin, the executive director of the Historical Society of Princeton). As Burrell also writes, Einstein had specific instructions for his remains: “cremate them, and scatter the ashes secretly in order to discourage idolaters.”
Albert Einstein’s House at 112 Mercer Street in Princeton, where he lived starting in 1935
Clearly the opposite has happened. Harvey preserved Einstein’s brain (dividing it somewhere between 170 and over 200 parts), while also removing his eyeballs, which he gifted to Einstein’s eye doctor, Henry Abrams. Einstein had been his patient since 1939, upon the request of a neighbor in Princeton. The two would become confidants and activists together, spending time in conversation in Einstein’s house on Mercer Street and fundraising on behalf of Israel Bonds and the United Jewish Appeal.
Einstein’s brain spent time in a University of Pennsylvania lab, in jars in Harvey’s basement, and when Harvey moved to the Midwest, “in a cider box stashed under a beer cooler,” reports ABC News. He moved around six more times, taking the brain pieces with him, even after he lost his medical license. At some point, he befriends William S. Burroughs who would brag that he had access to Einstein’s brain.
Proper scientific research was never done, though Harvey often claimed it was taking place, and Harvey at one point tried to gift it Einstein’s granddaughter on an epic cross country journey with a journalist but she declined it. In the end, he returned what he had back to the Princeton hospital where he performed the autopsy. In 1985, four pieces were used in a study published in the journal Experimental Neurology. Another study was done in 1996, published in Neuroscience Letters. Two pieces of the brain ended up on display in London in 2012.
Einstein’s eyeballs have had a less globetrotting route. It went from Harvey’s hands, to Abrams and into the safe deposit box, where it said to remain today though, Burrell writes, are “frequently rumored to be poised for the auction block.” Abrams has countered the rumor however, telling the Sun Sentinel in 1994, “Albert Einstein was a very important part of my life – a lasting influence. Having his eyes means the professor’s life has not ended. A part of him is still with me.“ Abrams died in 2009 at the age of 97.
Next, read about the whereabouts of Napoleon’s penis (in New Jersey!).