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by William H. Benson

April 16, 2009

     As a child, Albert Einstein had difficulty with language. He did not speak words until he was nearly three, and when he did begin to talk, he exhibited echolalia, repeating phrases and sentences that he had heard, but softly to himself, again and again. He seemed withdrawn, distracted, and was on occasion referred to as “the dopey one.” It seemed to some he had a learning disability.

     Some current biographers have gone so far to suggest that young Albert may have suffered from autism, or that he may have had Asperger’s Syndrome, but others have dismissed that theory by pointing to Albert’s raucous sense of humor, not a symptom usually associated with autistic children.

     Born in Ulm, Germany to Jewish parents in 1879, Albert seemed an unremarkable child, average, perhaps even low, in intelligence, but as an adult he displayed a singular ability for physics, for the workings of time and space.

     His genius was that of the visual and spatial variety. He could dream and visualize, but then he struggled with the language to explain his thoughts. It seemed one part of his brain was over-developed and another was under-developed. His classroom lectures, once he had arrived at Princeton, were noted for being exceptionally disorganized.  

      In 1948, during an exploratory surgery, doctors discovered “an aneurysm, a swelling and weakening in his abdominal aorta,” that they understood would eventually burst. Seven years passed, and on March 14, 1955, he turned seventy-six, but by then the aneurysm had begun to enlarge. Doctors suggested a risky surgery, but Einstein refused.

     “It is tasteless to prolong life artificially,” he said. “I have done my share. It is time to go. I will do it elegantly.” To Helen Dukas, his long-time assistant, he said, “You’re hysterical. I have to pass on sometime, and it doesn’t really matter when.”

     On April 13, the pain in his stomach forced him to stop working, and two days later he entered the Princeton Hospital in New Jersey, and there, on April 18, Monday morning, just past 1:00 a.m., the aneurysm burst, “like a big blister.” Einstein was dead.

     His wishes were to have his body cremated, and it was. At a private service, his ashes were scattered upon the Delaware River. He had wanted no headstone, nothing that could then become “a place of pilgrimage, where pilgrims would come to view the bones of a saint.” He did not want his final resting place to serve as a subject of morbid veneration.

     Unknown to the family was that the pathologist at the Princeton Hospital on duty that day, Thomas Harvey, had performed an autopsy upon Albert, had done so without permission from the family or the hospital, and that he had removed and embalmed Einstein’s brain. Harvey was fired from his job, and rightfully so, and so he began to wander about the country—from Missouri, to Kansas, and even a trip to California—as he drifted through a series of jobs and marriages.

     And wherever he went, he took the glass embalming jars holding Einstein’s brain with him, and he did that for the next forty-three years. Whenever someone asked him about Einstein’s brain, he said that he was preparing a report, but he never did.

     Finally, in 1998, Thomas Harvey, then 86, did the right thing and returned Albert Einstein’s brain to the pathologist on duty at the Princeton Hospital, and testing could begin, but the tests were inconclusive as to whether his brain’s construction was the reason for his genius or not. It was average-sized, perhaps even small. Some noted that the Sylvan Fissure was missing. Others believed that the temporal lobe was an abnormal size, but nothing definitive could account for Einstein’s breathtaking mental capabilities at the same time that he had trouble with language.

     But Einstein had explained his genius in a series of comments years before his passing. “I discovered that nature was constructed in a wonderful way, and our task is to find out the mathematical structure of nature itself. It is a kind of faith that has helped me through my whole life.” “The contrast between the popular assessment of my powers and the reality is simply grotesque. I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”

     “The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”