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What happens when a curious young journalist teams up with the pathologist who dissected Einstein's brain? If a drive cross-country in a Buick Skylark isn't the first thing to come to mind, it's just the first of many humorous surprises in Michael Paterniti's winning account of the transporting of this celebrated cerebellum.
Encased protectively in a Tupperware container, Einstein's brain is in the possession of Dr. Thomas Harvey. The now 86-year-old former pathologist, who performed the autopsy on Einstein after his death in 1955, raised the story of the missing organ to near mythic proportions when he secretly removed it for his own scientific study.
Enthralled with the bizarre story of the notorious gray matter, Paterniti sleuths out the location of the elusive pathologist, determined to find out if he is indeed "a grave-robbing thief or a renegade? A sham artist or a shaman?" The friendly but enigmatic Harvey agrees to Paterniti's scheme to chauffeur him from his home in Princeton, New Jersey, to Berkeley, California, where he plans to deliver the brain to Evelyn Einstein, Albert's granddaughter.
Skillfully weaving facts about Einstein with the quirky narrative of this offbeat road trip, Paterniti's own personal journey rises to the surface as he muses over the course of his own life, including a stalled relationship with a girlfriend in Maine. From cheap motels and diners to kitschy museums and roadside attractions, Michael and his reluctant hero, Dr. Harvey, take readers on an entertaining and touching oddball pilgrimage. Driving Mr. Albert
is one trip readers won't soon forget.
Read an Excerpt
On a cold winter day, during one of my early visits to
Dr. Harvey, we drove around Princeton, making the
obligatory pilgrimage to 112 Mercer Street, the house
where Einstein spent the last twenty years of his life.
We sat for awhile with the car running, warm air pouring
from the heater, gazing at a modest wood-frame colonial
with black shutters on a pleasant block of like houses.
More than anything, Einstein said he loved the old place for the light that filled
the upstairs rooms and for the gardens out back. He kept pictures of
Michaelangelo and Schopenhauer hanging in his study, because, as he said,
both men had escaped an everyday life of raw monotony and taken "refuge
in a world crowded with images of our own creation."
Sitting in the car, Thomas Harvey recalled hoew the Einstein family gathered
here after the scientist's death, how his son, Hans Albert, and Einstein's
longtime assistant, Helen Dukas, and Einstein's executor, Otto Nathan, as
well as a small group of intimates, drove to a secret spot along the Delaware
and scattered the ashes that remained of Albert Einstein's body, And that
Not surprsingly, however, controversy immediately enshrouded the removal
of Einstein's brain. Word was leaked by Harvey's former teacher Dr.
Zimmerman that Harvey had Einstein's brain, and that he, Zimmerman, was
expecting to receive it from his student. When this was reported in The New
York Times a day after Einstein's death, Hans Albert, who knew nothing of
his father's brain having been removed, was flabbergasted. Otto Nathan
expressed regret and shock, and later implied that Harvey was a bald-faced
thief. But, according to Harvey, Nathan, who died in 1984, stood by the door
of the morgue, watching the entire autopsy. (Nathan would later claim he
didn't know what Harvey was up to.)
Meanwhile, Harvey announced in a press conference that he was planning to
conduct medical research on the brain. He says he spoke to Hans Albert
over the phone, assuring him the brain would be studied for its scientific
value, which would then be reported in a medical journal, thus allaying one of
the deepest fears of the Einstein family: that the brain would becom a
pop-cultural gewgaw. "My one regret is that I didn't come to Mercer Street
and talk to Hans Albert in person," Harvey told me that day. "You know,
clear things up before it got out of hand."
But things were already out of hand. Zimmerman, then on staff at New
York's Montefiore Medical Center, prepared for the delivery of Einstein's
brain, but it never arrived. Increasingly flummoxed, then angry and
embarrassed, Zimmerman found out that Princeton Hospital, under the
direction of a man named John Kauffman, had decided not to relinquish it.
"Hospitals Tiff over Brain of Einstein," read one 1955 headline, and went on
to describe how the brain remained at "the center of a jurisdictional dispute,"
with Princeton Hospital standing its ground, like an old-time gunfighter,
claiming "the brain wouldn't be taken out of town."
But then, a few years after the autopsy, Harvey was fired from his job for
allegedly refusing to give up Einstein's brain to Kauffman. In fact, Harvey
had kept the brain himself, not at the hospital, but at home, and when he left
Princeton he simply took it with him. Years passed. There were no studies or
findings. And, in turn, no legal action was brought against Harvey, as there
was no precedence in the courts for the recovery of a brain under such
circumstances. And then Harvey fell off the radar screen. When he gave an
occasional interview--in local newspaper articles from 1956 and 1979 and
1988--he always repeated that he was about "a year from finishing study on
Four decades later, there's still no study. And because somewhere in his
watery blue eyes, his genial stumble-footing, and that ineffable cloak of
hunched integrity that falls over the old, I find myself feeling for him and can't
bring myself to ask the essential questions: Is he a grave-robbing thief or a
renegade? A sham or a shaman?