Context.—

In the late 19th century, mutual autopsy societies formed, first in Paris, France (1876) and later in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Members, who were often a who's who of anthropologists, physicians, intellectuals, and highly accomplished citizens, pledged to submit their bodies for autopsies to be performed by living society members so that their brains could be weighed and surface topography studied, with the results to be correlated with the decedents' intelligence and personal strengths during life.

Objective.—

To explore the short history of these societies, the science they produced, and their extensive newspaper coverage in the United States.

Design.—

Available primary and secondary historic sources were reviewed.

Results.—

The Société Mutuelle d'Autopsie in Paris and the American Anthropometric Society in Philadelphia had different motives, as the former was heavily influenced by French Third Republic politics and secularism. The American press provided titillating coverage of both and was particularly fascinated by scandals. In America, Burt Wilder formed a splinter group and established the Wilder Brain Collection at Cornell University. In a period where many anthropologists were making untrue claims that brain and skull measurements were largely determined by race and sex, Wilder and Franklin P. Mall of the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia independently published carefully conducted studies proving this was not the case.

Conclusions.—

Mutual autopsy societies and brain clubs conclusively established that brain weight was not an accurate predictor of intelligence but accomplished little else; they were phased out shortly after World War I but are the predecessor to modern-day brain banks.

In 1979, 20th century astrophysicist, astrobiologist, Pulitzer Prize–winning author, and science commentator Carl Sagan (1934–1996) published Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science.1  Each chapter was an article published in a wide variety of magazines between 1974 and 1979. Its first chapter, “Broca's Brain,” begins with Sagan being given a private tour of the Musée de l'Homme in Paris, France, where he and his guide eventually happen upon the brain of mid-19th century physician, anatomist, and anthropologist Paul Broca, MD (1824–1880) (Figure 1) in fixative in “one of the many low cylindrical bottles”1p25 hidden in the eerie and private far reaches of the museum. Broca's name is remembered for his discovery that the third convolution of the left frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex controls articulate speech and that lesions of “Broca's area” cause aphasia. In this chapter, Sagan discusses the beliefs of Broca, and many of his other contemporary Parisian anthropologists, that it may be possible to understand human behavior by correlating the size and convolutional patterns of brains removed at autopsy with the known personalities, experiences, and accomplishments of their former owners. Sagan wrote “It was difficult to hold Broca's brain without wondering whether in some sense Broca was still in there - His wit, his sceptical mien, his abrupt gesticulations when he talked, his quiet and sentimental moments.”1p28 The other chapters in the book address Sagan's ideas on charlatans, “paradoxers” living at the edge of science, and the importance of public science literacy, all topics of acute current-day interest.

Figure 1

Paul Broca. Credit: Wikipedia.

Figure 1

Paul Broca. Credit: Wikipedia.

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This article focuses on the brief history of mutual autopsy societies, brain clubs, and the scientific belief that differences in brain weight, the sizes of lobes, and gyral and sulcal patterning predicted personality, intelligence, and behavior. These entities and beliefs were preceded by phrenology.

Phrenology was the late 18th and early 19th century belief that palpable bumps on the skull reflect the degree of development (and hence function) of 27 different underlying “organs” of the brain, and that these 27 organs control 27 different personality traits. Phrenologists claimed they could, by palpating a living person's skull, predict the owner's personality traits, both strengths and weaknesses. This pseudoscience was largely debunked by the mid-19th century, but it held wide public appeal and many 19th century intellectuals had their bumps palpated. By the mid-19th to late 19th century, it led to legitimate scientific inquiry as to whether the brains of geniuses were anatomically different from the brains of ordinary normal citizens or abnormal citizens, specifically criminals and murderers.2  This quickly led to mutual autopsy societies and brain clubs.

The first of these was the Société Mutuelle d'Autopsie, which began in Paris, France, on October 19, 1876. Its formation was suggested by Auguste Coudereau, MD (1832–1882) (Figure 2) at a meeting of the internationally renowned Société d'anthropologie de Paris, which had been established by Broca in 1859; as part of Broca's vision, it also had a laboratory, a school, a museum, and a library. The anthropology laboratory became the autopsy room for the Société Mutuelle d'Autopsie. Nineteen founding members agreed to have autopsies performed by other members upon their deaths. It was primarily a brain donation club started by anthropologists wanting to study the brains of intellectuals in the hopes of advancing science.35  The Société formed just as France was transitioning into a secular republic; intellectuals aspired that science, as opposed to Bourbon monarchist or religious ideologies, would reign supreme. Its leadership sought to grow the Société initially by advertising in republican publications and later by sending letters to potential recruits; 500 brochures were sent out in 1890 and 3000 in 1905,3  the year church and state were formally separated in France. Members, both male and female, were required to provide a will leaving their brains, and often their whole bodies, to the Société; they were also required to provide a “testament” self-describing their personalities, as well as their strengths and weaknesses, and pay annual dues to cover the cost of running the Société. The Société acquired another 100-plus members in its first few years and many of these were notable political figures of the left and far left. Strangely, a few of the less intellectual new republican members joined, at least in part, as they believed that having an autopsy precluded any possibility of being accidentally buried alive.4,5 

Figure 2

Auguste Coudereau, tombstone engraved with his image at Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, France. Many members of the Société Mutuelle d'Autopsie were so anti-Catholic that they chose to forgo burial. Coudereau, or his family, clearly decided otherwise, providing this nice likeness. Credit: Coudereau, Auguste (tombe) – Wikimedia Commons.

Figure 2

Auguste Coudereau, tombstone engraved with his image at Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, France. Many members of the Société Mutuelle d'Autopsie were so anti-Catholic that they chose to forgo burial. Coudereau, or his family, clearly decided otherwise, providing this nice likeness. Credit: Coudereau, Auguste (tombe) – Wikimedia Commons.

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The first member to die was jurist and lawyer Louis Asseline (1829–1878); his autopsy was performed by Broca. Asseline's brain was displayed as part of the society's exhibit at the 1889 Paris World's Fair.5  Broca's own autopsy occurred 2 years after Asseline's and Coudereau's, 2 years after that; both brains were added to the growing collection. After Broca's death, the anthropology laboratory was run by Jean-Baptiste Vincent Laborde (1830–1903) (Figure 3).6,7  Autopsy reports for the more famous decedents were often published.

Figure 3

Jean-Baptiste Vincent Laborde. Credit: Wikidata.org/wiki/Q21064770.

Figure 3

Jean-Baptiste Vincent Laborde. Credit: Wikidata.org/wiki/Q21064770.

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Little has been published about the Société. Most of what is known about it can be traced to Jennifer Michael Hecht, PhD, who while working on her dissertation, came across the society's archive, which included a “dusty box in the basement of the Paris Musée de l'Homme (down a very dark spiral staircase – one brings a flashlight).”4p6 Hecht's writings were preceded by a short article by Nélia Diaz.3 

From its beginning, Société Mutuelle d'Autopsie membership was popular amongst atheists and certain other left-leaning intellectuals; as France was secularizing during its Third Republic (circa 1870), intellectuals wanted to flaunt this blatant act of desecration and deconsecration of the temple of human body in the faces of the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church.4,5  Furthermore, if physical features of a decedent's brain could explain all aspects of their mental functions and personalities, there was no need to postulate the existence of an immortal soul. For the membership, the act of donating one's brain helped offset the disheartening consequences of having neither a soul nor future prospects of an afterlife; this allowed the donor to convert his/her meaningless death into an opportunity to advance science. Hecht likened the testament documents to a Catholic confession and dinners celebrating the death and dissection of a member (see below) to a “secular version of the Catholic Last Rites.”4,5  Many members used their testament and wills to state they did not want a funeral or even a burial and that all that remained of their bodies, after any scientifically useful portions had been removed at autopsy by the Société, should simply be discarded as garbage; this was in sharp contrast to Catholic reverent funeral ceremonies.4,5 

Some membership testaments were arrogant and used to praise one's accomplishments and personality, while others were used to articulate concerns or regrets (ie, like confession to a priest) or simply to highlight their negative thoughts about the Church. Hecht's book describes many of these testaments in detail to emphasize this point. Henri Thulié, MD (1832–1916) (Figure 4, A) was a prominent member of the Société who had assisted Broca in performing Asseline's autopsy and who wrote and published Asseline's autopsy report. Hecht noted that Thulié's description of his own mind, likely one of the arrogant types, had been lost by the Société “and he couldn't bring himself to write it again.” He instead confessed “I was brazen then and will this time allow my friends to estimate my ‘modest personality.'”4 

Figure 4

A, Cartoon of Henri Thulié (1832–1916) performing an autopsy. By Henri Demare (1846–1888) circa 1880. It was published in Les Hommes d'Aujourd'hui; image supplied by Fine Art Finder. Product ID:dmcs_22748746_8165_601. Credit: wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f8/Les_Hommes_N_144_Henri_Thuli%C3%A9.jpg. B, Cartoon of Mathias Duval, pictured with books, a pile of skulls, jars of fetuses, and a basket of eggs; note that 1 egg is hatching in his left hand; the color lithograph was produced by L. Roc and published in Les Hommes d'Aujourd'hui; Credit: Wikimedia. Wellcome_V0001730.jpg.

Figure 4

A, Cartoon of Henri Thulié (1832–1916) performing an autopsy. By Henri Demare (1846–1888) circa 1880. It was published in Les Hommes d'Aujourd'hui; image supplied by Fine Art Finder. Product ID:dmcs_22748746_8165_601. Credit: wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f8/Les_Hommes_N_144_Henri_Thuli%C3%A9.jpg. B, Cartoon of Mathias Duval, pictured with books, a pile of skulls, jars of fetuses, and a basket of eggs; note that 1 egg is hatching in his left hand; the color lithograph was produced by L. Roc and published in Les Hommes d'Aujourd'hui; Credit: Wikimedia. Wellcome_V0001730.jpg.

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As detailed by Hecht, for several years after its formation, the Société Mutuelle d'Autopsie struggled to obtain state authorization, primarily because the government did not want to take sides in battles between religious and antireligious factions. In this context, Sagan reminds us that:

Earlier, Broca had encountered great difficulty in establishing a society of anthropology in France. The Minister of Public Instruction and the Prefect of Police believed that anthropology must, as the free pursuit of knowledge about human beings, be innately subversive to the state… Not only the police but also the clergy opposed the development of anthropology in France, and in 1876 the Roman Catholic political party organized a major campaign against the teaching of the subject in the Anthropological Institute of Paris founded by Broca.1p26

In keeping with his alleged subversive tendencies, it should be remembered that Broca had previously founded a society of “freethinkers” in 1848. While Broca was apparently an excellent neuroanatomist, many of his beliefs about the origin of human races are now known to be false and are considered racist.8 

At a time before effective anatomy legislation existed and when grave-robbing was rampant to supply cadavers for American medical schools, the American public, which was riveted by grave-robbing stories,911  developed a sort of morbid, but intermittent, fascination with the Société. For the American press, which appears to have been unaware of the underlying secularism issues in France, the story was simply titillating. The first American newspaper coverage identified was in The Chicago Tribune on January 15, 187812—less than 2 years after the formation of the Société. This article was reprinted from the London Daily Telegraph:

According to the Paris Temps—a grave and decorous journal, very rarely indulging in the vagaries of anecdotage in which much sprightly sheets as the Figaro and [another tabloid] take delight—a society has been formed in Paris for the purpose of enabling the members thereof to eat [together]… The gentlemen are not, as might be inferred from the premises, literary or artistic critics. They are only a body of physicians, surgeons, anthropologists, and savants who have formed themselves into a Mutual Autopsy Society, each member pledging himself to give up his remains after death to be dissected by his surviving friends. When a member departs this life his brethren meet in the salon of a restaurant, dine gayly, and, after coffee, a box is placed on the table containing a number of glass vessels, in which the relics of the member deceased, the [host] of the feast, are carefully preserved in spirits. The Temps adds a story … about a sick member of the Society who, with unpardonable carelessness, called in a brother member as medical attendant. The Society had been for a long time bereft of a “subject” for dissection; and naturally the patient was very soon promoted to a glass [bottle] and a bath of spirits of wine. Our Parisian contemporary, in chronicling the alleged establishment of this strange association, observes that, in view of the prevailing morbid objection to dissection in cases where it is medically desirable, the Mutual Autopsy Society may play a useful part… England has not enjoyed the boon of a Mutual Autopsy Society.12 

The author of this article misunderstood the intent of the Société and did not realize that these decedents were not undergoing autopsies to study pathology nor were they donating their bodies to a medical school for anatomical dissection to promote learning for medical students, but rather were donating their brains because, as intellectuals, they believed the study of their brains would advance science. In fact, this article never even mentions the word “brain.” The fine distinction between anatomical dissection and autopsy has always been historically blurry; the objective of the former is to educate medical trainees about normal anatomy, as well as common variations, and the anatomical dissection is rarely performed with knowledge of the cadaver's medical history, while the latter aims to understand clinicopathologic correlation with premortem signs, symptoms, and findings of the specific individual being dissected and to determine the cause of death. This distinction, from a 19th century perspective, is explored in detail in an article about the public autopsy of the slave Joice Heth in 1836, which launched P. T. Barnum's career as the Greatest Showman on Earth.13 

While some academic physicians may have known of its existence, I could not identify more coverage until S. W. Butler, MD, wrote a short piece about the Société in the The Medical and Surgical Reporter: A Weekly Journal, edited by D. G. Brinton, MD, and J. F. Edwards, MD, early in 1883. It was precipitated by the death of Léon Gambetta (1838–1882), a prominent French republican politician and Prime Minister of France who was a member of the Société. According to Butler:

…The wisdom which caused him to become a member of this association is not by any means the least evidence of his transcendental greatness. It requires an intellectual power of more than ordinary magnitude to enable a man to so rise above his surrounding influences as to be capable looking down with indifference upon the foolish sentimentalities and ridiculous display of morbid feelings about ourselves after death which is so characteristic of and so strongly imbued in the average man. … But we should go further than did Gambetta. Not alone the brain should be donated for scientific investigation, but every organ as well. The viscera may be all enucleated without rendering the body unsightly when prepared for burial. If the family physician, who had known and recorded the various ailments from which the body had suffered during life, was to compare notes with the pathologist who examined the organs after death, symptomatology would receive a great boost. Let us have a mutual autopsy society; it must emanate from physicians who realize its value: therefore let us set the example.14 

In New Orleans The Daily Picayune ran a story “A Mutual Autopsy Society” on February 25, 1883.15  It printed the Butler piece essentially in its entirety and further suggested that:

In this city the project of organizing a similar society is urged by the Medical and Surgical Reporter as being well worthy of attention, and Dr. J. F. Edwards, the assistant editor of that journal is a strong advocate of the system.15 

Back in France, another member, French anatomist/histologist Mathias Duval, MD (1844–1907) (Figure 4, B), published a treatise on Gambetta's brain.16  Duval is also known for Schiller-Duval bodies characteristic of endodermal sinus tumors (also known as yolk sac tumors). It should be noted that Gambetta was a close friend of Laborde.

After this, brief newspaper coverage in America was generally precipitated when a famous Société member died in France and their brain was donated. The same was true in France; as noted by Hecht: “attention from the press would continue throughout the project, becoming especially heavy when the society got hold of a particularly famous brain.”4p9

The next extensive American coverage related to General Louis Faidherbe (1818–1889), a French general and former colonial administrator in Senegal and “French West Africa.” The story behind Faidherbe's donation was told in 2 different ways. The first article was not sympathetic to the Société. According to the New York Herald on October 20, 1889:

General Faidherbe was one of that small number of French general officers who in the last war between France and Germany won a battle and come out with a fair measure of fame, and all France was saddened and sympathetic over his recent death. Yet there was one man who claimed a debt in that psychological hour… The gallant soldier had in his day been a member of a mutual autopsy society, and as such had made a contract by the mere fact of membership that his body should be delivered at his death for post-mortem inquiry. And, therefore, while all others were filled with lamentation forth came M. Laborde and claimed the body of the dead General. This was the first that Mme. Faidherbe had ever heard of the existence of the society or of the General's relation to it, and she was shocked at the awful suggestion that the body of her beloved dead should be mutilated by the anatomists. She objected, of course. She denounced the proposition as inhuman, illegal, immoral and, in short, horrible, and as every good old lady would do in the same circumstances she made a great deal of noise about it, and half France became involved in the debate… The surgeon… yielded… [to]… the bereaved lady, and so the General was buried… There is some scientific reason to regret that the autopsy was not made. General Faidherbe had locomotor ataxy and had been a victim of the malady for forty years. Dr. Charcot says that the malady was never before been observed in one person for so long a time. The observation of the conditions that had arrested the progress of the disease might have been of benefit to humanity.17 

About 2 weeks later, a follow-up report in the New York Herald on November 3, 1889, provided further clarification and is quoted in its entirety below:

There appears to have been some errors in the reports in regard to General Faidherbe and the Society of Mutual Autopsy. In the General's will are these words: “I desire that after my death there shall be made upon my body an autopsy under the direction of the Society of Mutual Autopsy. Desiring further that my body may be utilized for science I bequeath it, especially the brain and skull, to the Laboratory of Anthropology. This is my particular desire.”

M. Laborde declares that the widow and heirs did not oppose and object to the execution of the will, but that the ravages of disease had produced a condition of parts that would have made a satisfactory examination impossible. This seems a little obscure, because one of the things that it is proposed to discover by an autopsy is just what ravages diseases had made. But that is the point of view of ordinary autopsies made for the coroner or for the study of disease; while the point of view of the Mutual Autopsy Society was the making of post mortem examinations for the study of health.

This society was founded for a definite purpose, and its members were many of them famous men; and the brains of some of them have contributed, as proposed to the object the society had in view. One of its famous members was Gambetta, another was Broca, whose great discovery of the function of the third frontal convolution in the human brain marked a new era in cerebral study and has more scientific value than the discovery of two or three continents. Gambetta's brain and Broca's were both dissected for the society. The purpose of this society was to study brains. Brains abound, of course, in the Paris hospitals, but the victims of disease in the hospitals are generally obscure or unknown person in whose lives there is nothing notable, and the desire was to study the brains of men who had some achievement in their history, or some notable faculties, in order that it might be determined whether any cerebral peculiarities could be associated with distinguished faculties. Therefore a brain broken down by disease was useless for this purpose. Gambetta's brain, by the way, showed a very unusual development of Broca's convolution, and as he had a wonderful capacity for language, this was a strong case for Broca's theory.18 

Strangely, at least in the context of our current indications for performing autopsies, this autopsy was cancelled because pathology was expected.

A long article, “The Mutual Autopsy Society,” appeared in The Journal (New York City) on March 29, 1896. Once again, this coincided with the death of a famous Parisian, M. Abel Hovelacque (1843–1896), who was the director of the Anthropological Society:

There is in Paris a large, carefully organized society of scientists with several women members which has a ghastly and horrible purpose. Each member has solemnly pledged himself that when he dies his body, instead of having ceremonious burial, shall be delivered to his surviving associates, who shall dissect it, and that his brain likewise shall be studied and probed for Its secrets, and finally immersed in alcohol, it shall be ranged in a glass beside the skull which held it along with other brains and skulls of those that have gone before. The name of this strange organization is the Mutual Autopsy Society (La Societe d'Autopsie Mutuelle). It is composed of about one hundred living members, and the dead, whose skulls and brains are neatly catalogued in a glass case at one end of the meeting room, number fourteen. Within a few days the fifteenth ghastly relic will have its place there. This fifteenth was in life the property of M. Abel Hovelacque, director of the Anthropological Society, who died a short time ago. It now rests, immersed in alcohol, on the table of the dissecting room, where soon will gather the man's former comrades to weigh and cut and probe and discuss it, and try to pierce the mystery which it holds. The Mutual Autopsy Society was organized in 1876, when several professors and savants of the Anthropological Society decided to offer themselves as examples in making a sacrifice to science. “Why,” they asked one another, “should we render immediately to earth the deserted moral tenement, the study of which offers so vast and interesting possibilities for the advancement of science?”19 

The article next included the wording of the consent document signed by its members and then the following text:

M. Hovelacque's heirs offered no objection to the carrying out of his will, and it is anticipated that some unusually interesting discoveries will be made when the autopsy takes place, for the dead man was one of the most prominent members of the society. M. Hovelacque was fifty-three years old at his death, a leading French savant, and a famous linguist, particularly in Oriental tongues. Though Professor of Linguistic Ethnography in the School of Anthropology, he took an active interest in politics and was an ardent Socialist. At the time of his death he was a member of the Chamber of Deputies. In religion he was a materialist. The president of the society is the celebrated Dr. Laborde, professor of the School of Anthropology and chief of the physiologic work of the Faculty of Paris.

The fourteen brains which are now in the columbarium of the society belonged in life, according to the official list, to the following people: Assellne, Assezat, Broca, Dr. Bertillon, Coudereau, Fauvelle, Gambetta, ilie great French statesman; Gillet, Vital. Lavollay, Mine. Leblais, Mondiere, Sauzel and Eugene Veron [NB: No attempt has been made to correct the numerous typographical errors in this list]. Other Illustrious names should also figure in this list, among them those of General Faidhenbe and of Viollett le Due. These celebrated Frenchmen were members of the society, but exceptional circumstances prevented an autopsy being held upon their remains…

Not long ago one of the societal members resolved to commit suicide, and wrote to the president of the association to that effect. But at the last moment a terrible doubt passed through his mind as he asked himself if his wife would be likely, after all, to consent to his autopsy. He therefore drew up his last will and testament, which stipulated that his fortune should go to the city of Paris in case his wife should strive to prevent the disposition of his body that he wished. Then he killed himself. After his death the Mutual Autopsy Society claimed his remains and had possession of them for a short time. Then the wife, by legal proceedings, secured possession of what was left of her husband's body and had it decently interred in the provinces. The city of Paris thereupon laid claim to the estate, and the Societe d'Autopsie sued for the recovery of the suicide's brain. Both cases are still in the Paris courts…19 

While it should be emphasized that searching old newspapers is very imprecise because of spotty indexing, this identical article appeared in newspapers elsewhere in the country, including Ketchum, Idaho, and Auburn, California, during the next few months under a different title, “Pledge Their Bodies: An Uncanny Society Known as the Autopsy Club.”20.21 A short synopsis appeared in the Atlanta Medical Surgical Journal in 1897; it unsympathetically describes:

A society in Paris, consisting of scientists of note, having about one hundred members, several of whom are women, has the ghastly purpose of placing the brains of its members at the disposal of surviving comrades, for examination and dissection …22 

By the end of the 19th century, there appeared to be little continued American interest in the Société, as most press coverage now focused on the American Anthropometric Society. The Société's heyday in France was over by the early 1900s, but it continued to attract new members until World War I. The organization faded out of existence shortly before World War II.4 

The American version of the brain club, the American Anthropometric Society (AAS), was started by a small “who's who” group of former and current Philadelphia medical school professors in 1889. Prominent University of Pennsylvania (Penn; Philadelphia) members included provost William Pepper, MD (1843–1898), anatomy professor Joseph Leidy, MD (1823–1891), physiology professor Harrison Allen, MD (1841–1897), professor of comparative anatomy and zoology Andrew Jackson Parker, MD (1855–1892), neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell, MD (1829–1914), and internist William Osler, MD (1849–1919). Prominent Jefferson Medical College (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) members included neurology professor Francis X. Dercum, MD (1856–1931) and anatomy professor Edward Charles Spitzka, MD (1852–1914). At one point there were reportedly 300 AAS members, but only a few went public and so it mostly functioned as a secret society.2  Unlike the Société, the AAS brain club never had any overt or covert antireligious or political underpinnings. Most of the membership appear to have been protestants; it can also be documented from various biographies that some members had church burials after fulfilling their final membership duties. Initially, most autopsies were performed by Allen and Dercum, but in 1892 they hired pathologist Henry Ware Cattell, MD (1862–1936) (Figure 5) as the organizations' prosector who assisted with autopsies and was responsible for transporting and preserving brains in fixative (NB: Before the advent of formalin fixation, this was a monthslong complicated process involving Müller's fluid fixative changes at regular intervals).2 

Figure 5

Henry Ware Cattell during World War I. Credit: National Library of Medicine.

Figure 5

Henry Ware Cattell during World War I. Credit: National Library of Medicine.

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Little has been written about the AAS,2,23  and there is no definitive, informative source. Like with the Société, most of the coverage in the lay press related to acquisitions of new brains. Most were short newspaper articles but some were extensive exposés on the AAS. Many articles appear to be syndicated and to have appeared in scattered papers nationwide. The examples cited below highlight the breadth of papers providing coverage of the AAS.

On December 3, 1898, the Neihart Herald, a paper that only existed from 1890 to 1901, in the small silver mining boom town of Neihart, Montana (https://www.loc.gov/item/sn85053323/), published the following article. It provides a detailed history of the formation of the AAS:

It was in the brain of Dr. Wm. Pepper… that the idea first originated of forming an association of learned men who should bequeath their brains to their fellow members for the advancement of science. Prior to that time the surgeon and student of anatomy, in his study of the human seat of thought, had had to depend upon specimens derived from the hospitals and the morgues. These were, of course, the brains of men of the criminal class, or at least men of a low order of intellect. The benefits that should accrue to science from the study of the highly trained and educated brain had been much discussed in the medical world, and a meeting was called… for the purpose of organizing a movement that should make this study possible. There were barely a half score of scientists present upon that occasion, but they were all enthusiasts, and from that meeting grew the Anthropometric Society, whose membership now includes over 300 men prominent in various walks of life, residing in various parts of the country, whose brains are pledged to science. Dr. Joseph Leidy was the first president of the society and his brain was the first to be gathered into the treasury… Immediately after Dr. Leidy's death an autopsy was performed by Dr. Pepper and several others, and the brain was removed. It was found to be unusually heavy and richly convoluted, and it is still the most interesting of all the specimens in the society's possession. It was photographed and then bottled up in a solution of lead, which is deemed the most perfect method of preservation. From the photograph was made the centerpiece of the official seal of the Wistar Institute, designed by Rev. Dr. Henry C. McCook [1837-1911], who is also a lay member of the society. To the uninitiated layman this centerpiece appears to be nothing more than an odd sort of sponge, surrounded by a wreath of wisteria blossoms. It is, however, an exact reproduction of the upper surface of Dr. Leidy's brain, showing all the convolutions and fissures.24 

The Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) had been established in 1892 and was named after Penn anatomy professor Caspar Wistar (1761–1818); the idea and the funding were provided by Wistar's great-nephew, Isaac Jones Wistar (1827–1905), a prominent Philadelphia lawyer who served as Union brigadier general during the Civil War and, postbellum, became an exceedingly wealthy railroad executive. Wistar's vision was to develop a high-powered research center focused on anatomy and experimental and investigative biology.2527 

The 1898 Neihart Herald article continues by providing some interesting anecdotes about instances when the AAS failed to collect a member's brain. One example provides a nice segue into the organization's biggest scandal:

Dr. Cattell had made an effort to secure the brain of Walt Whitman, the poet, but had encountered the vigorous opposition of the venerable bard's family. Nevertheless he made the autopsy on March 27, 1892, and weighed and examined the brain, although he was not permitted to take away the tissue. This sentimental opposition to the mutilation of the dead is one of the great difficulties with which the society has had to contend in its relations with the families of members. So it is that the organization has had to become, in a measure, a secret society, and there are now enrolled upon the membership list the names of some men whose connection with the organization will never be made public. Among the medical men there is no such disposition to conceal their affiliation with the society, although their immediate relatives may not be quite so case hardened.24 

The Strange Saga of Cattell, Walt Whitman's Brain, the Wistar Institute, and Frankenstein's Monster

Cattell had not been entirely truthful.2  Whitman's family was opposed to the autopsy but an autopsy was performed at his home over their objection, based upon Walt Whitman's verbal consent provided to his family doctor, an AAS member, and another AAS member. According to Whitman's autopsy report, the brain had been removed, transported to Penn, weighed, and fixed for storage and future study. Unfortunately, Whitman's brain was accidentally destroyed after arriving at Penn but Cattell, who was responsible, did not tell anyone. In an attempt to preempt future blame, he told the New York Herald, which was running a story on the AAS on September 4, 1898, that he returned the brain to the body after the autopsy at the family's request.2  This, of course, did not make sense since it would have been impossible to accurately weigh Whitman's brain in the poet's home and, furthermore, the story ran counter to his autopsy report. Later, Cattell changed his story stating that the glass jar holding the brain had been dropped by an assistant. This “story” was known to a few AAS leaders but not widely disseminated until 1907, when Edward Anthony Spitzka, MD (1876–1922) [not to be confused with his father Edward Charles Spitzka, MD] published a 133-page long article entitled “A Study of the Brains of Six Eminent Scientists and Scholars Belonging to the American Anthropometric Society …” in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. While Spitzka's science made few immediate headlines, 2 sentences did: “The brain of Walt Whitman, together with the jar in which it had been placed, was said to have been dropped on the floor by a careless assistant. Unfortunately, not even the pieces were saved.”28p176 There was extensive coverage of this revelation and little notice of Spitzka's findings suggesting the great importance of the corpus callosum (Leidy's was described as “almost twice as large in cross-section area as that of the average man”). It was also revealed that several other eminent brains, all being stored at the Wistar Institute, had been damaged as well.2 

On December 6, 1907, The Philadelphia Inquirer ran the story “Whitman Brain Loss Threatens Scientific War”:

Dr. Greenman, the director and curator [at the Wistar Institute], said that the best of care had been taken of the Anthropometric Society's specimens. He lamented the fact that the Whitman brain had been destroyed. He said: “That was an accident. But the damage to the brains of Dr. White, Dr. Pepper and Dr. Allen was not our fault. They were faultily preserved, and deteriorated in spite of all we could do. We now have our own specialist to take preservative measures immediately after the deaths of any person whose brain we are to get and so prevent decay afterwards. I don't anticipate any trouble with the Anthropometric Society. They are at liberty, of course, to take back their specimens at any time, and we shall not try to obstruct them.”29 

Three days later, the Topeka Daily State Journal (December 9, 1907) reported:

It's to be hoped that there will be no unnecessary bloodshed in Philadelphia. Egged on by the American Philosophical society the American Anthropometric society is awful angry at the Wistar institute because the latter has not taken proper care of the brain of the late Walt Whitman.30 

The timing of this story was particularly unfortunate for the Wistar Institute, which only a year earlier had been designated as the American Central Institute for Brain Investigations by a Commission appointed by the International Association of Academies.25p511

To rub salt in the wound for the AAS, The Washington Herald published a long article on January 5, 1908, entitled “Science Is Stirred – Dr. Spitzka Says Corpus Callosum Fixes Brain Power – His Hypothesis Is Doubted.” After detailing that “fellow scientists do not readily accept [the] new theory,” the article ends with a quote from the executor of Walt Whitman's estate: “I cannot understand it. The fact that such an institution should permit the care of such precious property to an attendant who probably had no idea of the value of what he was handling is bad enough.”31 

Fortunately for Spitzka, not all fellow scientists were dismissive of his scholarship. An editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association published on July 23, 1908, had some positive observations:

… While the material is not large, Spitzka has studied it thoroughly and brought out some striking and suggestive facts… One of these is the striking difference in the areas of the cuneus-precuneus regions of the brains of Dr. Leidy and Professor Cope. This difference, according to that we know of the higher functions of the brain, corresponds to the different characteristics of the two men, Leidy having been especially strong in his power of observation, while Cope, thought not defective in observing faculty, was more prominently philosophic and constructive. Another striking result is that referring to the cerebro-cerebellar ratio which Spitzka finds a full unit higher in eminent men than in the average individual and the preponderance in the former of the commissural fibers as shown by the relative size of the callosum. These facts are very strikingly illustrated by figures and diagrams made from comparison with other material as well as with the brains that form the chief subject of the monograph.32 

This macabre story became increasingly bizarre after this. No one could explain why Whitman's fragmented brain was not saved, as there would clearly be some value in examining this. Yet, this remained the official story for more than 100 years. The mystery was solved when Cattell's recently discovered diary was sold on eBay in 2012. It documents that Cattell placed the brain in a jar of fixative; he forgot to cover it or change out the fixative as scheduled—for perhaps as long as 6½ months. The fixative evaporated and the brain simply decomposed. In an attempt to maintain the cover-up, one of his lab assistants had successfully blackmailed him, and Cattell at one point was suicidal.2  Cattell's weird tale is believed to be the source of the idea for the scene in the 1931 classic film where the hunchback Fritz drops the jar labelled “normal brain” and then provides Dr Frankenstein with a murderer's brain from a jar labelled “abnormal” for Frankenstein's monster, an element not present in Mary Shelly's 1818 novel.2 

As alluded to above, the brains of other AAS members were also found to have been damaged. According to Dercum:

With the brains of Dr. William Pepper, Dr. Harrison Allen, and Dr. Andrew J. Parker also in bad shape, this means a big blow to science and research. It is exceedingly to be regretted, and I think it very likely that efforts will be made to have our society take care of our own specimens henceforth. Our society only possesses eight brain specimens, but they were the organs of eight noted men, and are worth far more than their weight in gold. Half of them, you see, are now practically ruined.29 

Publically, both organizations blamed each other for damaging 3 of the brains. Knowing what we know now, likely all 4 losses were related to fixation problems; Cattell had links to both organizations at the time of the Whitman incident, as he was the AAS prosector and the Wistar Institute's pathologist. Furthermore, there is evidence that Spitzka already knew of performance issues. Cattell had quietly resigned as AAS prosector in 1897 and was not working for either organization at the time the scandal hit the news.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this story is not included in the general histories of the Wistar Institute or Penn or in biographies of some of those involved. It should also be noted that William Pepper's brain had not been easy to acquire, as he died while on vacation in California, and it took a week to drive his body back to Philadelphia.33  It seems possible that part of the fixation problem in his case was due to postmortem autolysis. Pepper's biography makes no mention of his primary role in forming the AAS.

William Osler, possibly the best known physician of the late 19th and early 20th century,34,35  travelled extensively during his career. He served as a pathologist at McGill (Montreal, Canada), an internist/pathologist at Penn, an internist at Johns Hopkins (Baltimore, Maryland), and an internist at Oxford (Oxford, United Kingdom). After his death on December 29, 1919, an autopsy was performed in his home and his brain continued to travel, as Osler was a member of the AAS brain club. Sources differ on whether he joined in 1889 as a founding member, which seems less likely, or whether he joined when giving a lecture at Penn in May 1894, at the opening of the new Wistar Institute building. By 1919, the study of brain topography was no longer in vogue but he had made a commitment and he asked Lady Osler to honor it shortly before his death. After his autopsy in Oxford, his brain was allowed to fix for 4½ months and then was hand-carried by a former colleague and deposited at the Wistar Institute. Its surface topography was studied by Myrtelle May Canavan, MD (1879–1953), one of the earliest female neuropathologists in America, and Henry Herbert Donaldson, MD (1857–1938), a neurology professor who was also Director of Research at the Wistar Institute. They observed nothing unusual, but did not section the brain or pursue histologic evaluation. In 1959, Wilder Penfield, MD (1891–1976) of the Montreal Neurological Institute (Montreal, Canada) agreed to give a lecture at the Wistar Institute on the condition that Osler's brain would be sent to Montreal for neuropathologic examination. Here, it was examined grossly and histologically by Gordon Mathieson, MD (1927–2018), who found nothing of significant interest. Osler's brain was then returned to Philadelphia. However, somewhere during its travels, histologic sections fell into the hands of a rare book seller, and were auctioned on eBay. Therefore, tiny bits of Osler's brain are scattered around the world.36 

Mutual autopsy societies and brain clubs were formed to study the brains of the elite, as it was believed that the portion(s) of the brain responsible for excellence must be well developed. Initially, it was strongly believed that size (ie, brain weight) was important, but brains from eminent donors were sometimes substantially lighter than expected. The first of these was Gambetta's, which weighed only 1160 g. This was embarrassing and the initial explanation offered was that the weight was incorrect, but when repeated, it weighed 1150 g. Eventually, the explanation became that the brain had been mishandled, resulting in loss of water content, and with “the aid of a number of complicated calculations… Gambreta's brain weight was altered to a more respectable heft.”5p726 The brain of Professor Laborde, who for many years led the Société, was also small (1234 g), and Spitzka wondered “whether this was due to atrophy from old age (seventy-three) or disease.”37  Other great men, on both sides of the Atlantic, had light brains. Such discrepancies were, at first, often passed off as measurement errors. However, by the 1910s, it was reasonably well established that brain weight did not determine intelligence.

Nevertheless, there is a curious letter to the editor in the Journal of the American Medical Association dated May 18, 1912, from AAS President Dercum.38  Apparently, rumors were spreading that AAS member John Herr Musser's brain had serious shortcomings, and this was embarrassing to the AAS and the decedent's family:

To the Editor:– After the death of Dr. John Herr Musser [1856-1912], a number of absurd statements appeared in the lay press in regard to the weight of the brain. Believing it to be only just to the memory of our distinguished and beloved colleague, I place into your possession the following facts which have just been communicated to me by Dr. Edward Anthony Spitzka, the prosector of the American Anthropometric Society, of which Dr. Musser was a member …39 

Dercum, after detailing its provenance, provided information on the brain. It was removed by Milton Jay Greenman, MD, ScD (1866–1937), Director of the Wistar, fixed for 3 weeks in 10% formaldehyde, and then transferred to Spitzka for examination. Spitzka reports various selected dimensions, its weight (1595 g), and some unusual topographic features. He specifically notes: “The fronto-occipital … measures 28.5 cm., somewhat in excess of average even in the other eminent as well as ordinary men previously measured.”39 

In 1914, there were multiple short newspaper articles about the AAS throughout the United States, reporting brain weights. According to the Bisbee Daily Review (Bisbee, Arizona) on January 5, 1914:

The average weight of the human brain is 1,300 grams. The brain of Dr. [Edward Charles] Spitzka was found to weigh 1,400 grams. Of the brains of noted men that have been weighed, the heaviest was that of [Russian novelist] Ivan Turgenev [1818-1883], which weighed 2,012 grams. The brains of many noted men have been under average weight. All of which would indicate that in the matter of brains, as in very many other things in life, it is quality rather than quantity that counts.40 

Current autopsy brain weight data indicate an average of 1336 g for adult males and 1198 g for adult females.41  Average brain weight increases with body height independent of sex, accounting for gender differences. Brain weight decreases with increasing age.41 

David Hayes Agnew, MD (1818–1892), an eminent anatomist and surgeon immortalized in Thomas Eakin's painting The Agnew Clinic, practiced in Philadelphia for more than 40 years. His career included being an owner-operator of the Philadelphia School of Anatomy (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), serving as a staff surgeon at the Philadelphia General Hospital (“Old Blockley,” Philadelphia), excelling as a Civil War surgeon, serving as the first occupant of the John Rhea Barton Chair of Surgery at Penn, and authoring the popular 3-volume textbook The Principles and Practice of Surgery. Because of his legendary ability to manage gunshot wounds, the US government sent a special express train to retrieve him to care for President James A. Garfield (1831–1881) after he was shot by Charles J. Guiteau (1841–1882).42  Upon his death, the AAS attempted to add Agnew's brain to their collection. According to his biographer: “As Dr. Agnew had not joined the society, although he was cognizant of its existence, Mrs. Agnew did not feel that it was his wish to have his brain added to this collection; and as she felt personally, a great repugnance to such an idea, she did not consent to their request.”43pp340–341 It is worthy of note that a detailed description of Guiteau's brain was published by Daniel Smith Lamb.44 

Pathologist Daniel Smith Lamb, MD (1843–1929) served at the Army Medical Museum, predecessor to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, for 55 years (1865–1920) and also served as a professor of anatomy at Howard University Medical School (Washington, District of Columbia) for 46 years (1877–1923). His career spanned from the end of the Civil War through the end of World War I. He performed the autopsies on President James A. Garfield and his assassin Charles Guiteau.45  Lamb was a member of the AAS, and he planned his autopsy well in advance of his death. He left very detailed instructions related to who should perform it, provided a detailed history guiding the pathologist's knife telling him what to look for while dissecting, and provided suggestions related to potential valuable teaching specimens to be retained by the museum. Lamb provided detailed instructions related to the fixation of his brain and asked that it not be incised unless it was diseased. Smith did not want his brain to be sent to the AAS, but rather to the Wilder Brain Collection (see below). It appears that a description of Lamb's brain was included in a large study published a few years later.45 

Burt Green Wilder, MD (1841–1925) (Figure 6) was a naturalist and anatomist who was hired by newly formed Cornell University (Ithaca, New York) as professor of physiology, vertebrate zoology, and neurology in 1867.46,47  From 1863–1865, he served as a Civil War surgeon for the all–African American 55th Massachusetts Infantry (NB: Before this, although Wilder was a physician, he had worked as a naturalist); his diaries have recently been turned into a book, describing a firsthand historical account of a Black Civil War regiment and how he mixed surgery and his love of spiders.48  By the early 1870s, his groundbreaking research was receiving national coverage. The Chicago Daily Tribune reported on August 30, 1873:

Figure 6

Burt Green Wilder, 1868. Credit: Purdy & Frear. Citation: Cornell University Faculty Biographical Files, No. 47-10-3394. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

Figure 6

Burt Green Wilder, 1868. Credit: Purdy & Frear. Citation: Cornell University Faculty Biographical Files, No. 47-10-3394. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

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Prof. Burt Green Wilder … [explained] that the science of the brain is in its infancy. Hitherto we have been studying on the wrong track. Now we think we are on the right track, and we hope in a few years to have arrived at some general idea of the subject. … The phrenologist [drew] his chart, not from the brain, but from the skull, and as the outer surface of the skull is no indication of that of the brain, these charts are worthless. The phrenologist has failed in application. It is almost rank blasphemy for a man in fifteen minute to tell a man his future destiny, his present character. Phrenology… is monstrous. It is a prodigious humbug – that is, in its present practice. … We must study the brain of those where characters are well known. At present we are studying the characters of paupers and those who are executed… We must have an intimately-known brain to study, or we study in the dark…49 

He sometimes made brash claims, which proved newsworthy, such as his widely covered predictions related to the man of the future, briefly excerpted below:

A short time ago, while in conversation with a group of student friends, he made a most startling prophecy for the future of man. “It is no play of the imagination,” said he, “to say that some time in the future the body of man will not exist – he will be just brain…The eternal law of nature, which says that all thing that are not used shall not exist, is at work with man. Man is not using his body, but his brain, therefore the body must cease to be. Evolution works slowly, but truly.50 

Wilder joined the AAS shortly after its formation and was a member of its publication committee; however, inconveniently, he was based in Ithaca, New York, and not Philadelphia. According to an article in Scientific American in 1896, he quit in December 1891 for the following reason:

The articles of incorporation of this Philadelphia society required that all brains should be disposed of at the headquarters of the society. From the first Prof. Wilder was not in accord with this restriction, and in December of 1891 he resigned, giving among others as a reason for his resignation: “My own circumstances and plans for investigation would preclude any such active co-operation as might naturally be expected. With hearty good wishes for the success of the society as a local or university organization for the increase and dissemination of important and accurate knowledge respecting the brain, I remain…”51 

Wilder wanted to use brains for his immediate research, and not simply store brains for future research by others in Philadelphia. Wilder established his own brain bank and he focused on obtaining brains from Cornell graduates, who could join by filling out the following form of bequest (Figure 7).

Figure 7

Brain donation consent form sent to Cornell University graduates by Burt Green Wilder.

Figure 7

Brain donation consent form sent to Cornell University graduates by Burt Green Wilder.

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The article further stated:

The Cornell Brain Association wishes to widen out the minds of people, and convince them that to have their brains preserved and studied is an honor to be coveted. … It pointedly asks: “Who can set a limit to the results that might have been attained from the examination of the brain of soldiers like Grant, Sherman and Sheridan, of preachers like Beecher, Brooks and Howard Crosby, and naturalists like Agassiz, Gray and Jefferies Wyman; of lawyers like Tilden, Conkling, and Benjamin Butler? [Furthermore] … The great need of average brains has been firmly impressed upon Prof. Wilder. Of this matter he says: “Another matter has impressed me more and more during the last year, namely, the need of a fissural standard based upon the careful comparison of large numbers of average, intelligent, educated and moral individuals, excluding the eminent as well as the immoral, the ignorant and the insane.” … It is understood that in all cases, even where it has been the manifest desire of the defunct that his brain should be given to the Cornell Brain Association, should the near relatives object to the fulfillment of the bequest, such desires of the living shall be respected.51 

Wilder's brain collection was well known because of outstanding and proactive press coverage. An article entitled “An Unusual Collection,” originally attributed to the New York Mail and Express, appeared across the country in December 1902. This version is quoted from the December 12, 1902, Black Hills Union (Rapid City, South Dakota):

Attention has been drawn, by two or three recent true statements in the newspapers, to a collection which is being amassed by a Cornell professor. Of course, all sorts of things are gathered nowadays by men and women who have the collecting instinct. … However, Professor Burt Green Wilder… is making a very important collection, the nature and object of which certainly surprises one a little, when one first hears of it. Professor Wilder is collecting human brains. … In a scientific spirit, he is trying to determine a question which certain other persons somewhat in the public eye are treating empirically – the question whether the bent of the humans mind and character can be sensibly determined by changes or development in the brain, produced by the training of the young. Can men be given a cerebral development which is greatly in advance of their inheritance? Or are men merely the creatures of their heredity? Was Webster's power altogether born in him because he was endowed by nature with a gigantic brain? Can we make Webster's out of little Thomas, and Richard and Henry, by taking them in time, and building up great brains in them? … To answer such questions, a man of science must have brains in more senses than one. That, at least, is Professor Wilder's opinion. Hence his collection. He endeavors by gentle persuasion to induce as many gifted people as possible to give him their brains when they are quite sure they are done with them. … The professor already has a noteworthy collection, but it is nothing to what it will be when all these bequests fall in. … Meantime, the professor does not insist that the specimens which he collects shall come wholly from geniuses, great criminals and other really eminent persons. The brains of quite commonplace people may have a legitimate place in the collection, doubtless as illustrating the physiological conditions which produce the commonplace. No brain, however humble, will be despised. Professor Wilder is open to gifts.52 

Essentially simultaneously, another story, often appearing with a drawn portrait of Wilder, “Hobby is Human Brains – Prof. Wilder has Greatest Collection in the World,” was traversing the country.53 

Wilder also published throughout his career on comparative anatomy. After Wilder died, his collaborators, anatomist and histologist Simon H. Gage (1851–1944) and neurologist James W. Papez (1883–1958), oversaw Wilder's brain collection at Cornell. Papez, as curator, would have received Daniel Smith Lamb's brain. Lamb, who had taught at Howard University, a medical school with mostly African American male students but also female students of all skin colors, likely appreciated Wilder's strong stance on the equality of Black persons and women (see below). It should be noted that Lamb's second wife was a medical graduate of Howard. Papez published a description of Wilder's brain in 1929.54 

In a period where many anthropologists were making untrue claims that brain and skull measurements were largely determined by race and gender, Wilder published carefully conducted studies proving this was not the case. Both Wilder and Franklin P. Mall (1862–1917)55  of the Wistar Institute, independently published important papers beginning in 1909 debunking these poorly performed studies. Both noted that all previous studies reporting racial and gender deficiencies, compared to white men, suffered from small sample sizes and were not conducted in a blind fashion. Kevin S. Weiner, PhD, who has published an excellent article on Wilder, speculates “perhaps this is one of the reasons Wilder tried so hard to build a large collection of brains – 1600, 430 of which were human brains …”47p47

In the wake of the Civil War, some of the above-mentioned pseudoscience had been used to justify voting and other restrictions. Wilder responded authoritatively:

Respecting the brains of American Negroes there are known to me no facts, deductions, or arguments that in my opinion, justify withholding from men of African descent, as such, any civil or political rights or any educational or industrial opportunities that are enjoyed by whites of equal character, intelligence, and property.47p49

To further highlight the absurdity of these claims, he famously published a striking image of juxtaposed, right and left cerebral hemispheres from 2 different autopsies with the following caption:

These are the opposite halves of the cerebrums of two very unlike persons. The right half is from G.F., an illiterate black janitor. The left from a white jurist and politician. As an ally of Tammany Hall [a powerful political machine in New York City] he probably condoned, if he did not encourage, the race riots in this city in the spring of 1863 when the first northern colored troops enlisted in spite of Democratic opposition. If so, we may charitably ascribe his conduct to sharing the general belief that every Negro's brain is so small as to unfit him for citizenship or even military service. Yet the brain of the black janitor weighed 5 ounces [142 gm.] more than that of the white jurist …, and now, when the left half of the lower margins coincide, at nearly all other point the black's outline may be seen beyond the white's. Let us hope that X.Y.Z. now rejoices that at least one of the blunders of his life has been rectified after his death.”47p48

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, Wilder had not only demonstrated an obvious counterexample opposing a generally flawed theory, but also simultaneously illustrated that a sample size of 2 is meaningless, especially when selection of the pair was not only not blinded but also specifically biased to make a point.

Some earlier researchers, as identified by Wilder and Mall, had published biased and false data to support preconceived notions. However, through careful science, these racist and sexist ideas were proven to be wrong.

Broca was a polygenist, and he believed that the internal volume (in cubic centimeters) of the cranium (cranial capacity), as an indicator of brain size, could be used to categorize and to heirarchize human races.56  It is easy, and perhaps tempting to look back and criticize the blatant racism.8  In historical parlance, this is called “presentism,” and many historians believe that it is inappropriate to interpret past events using present-day attitudes and values (ie, as opposed to those typical of the period during which a historical figure lived).57  Sagan's prescient words written more than 40 years ago address presentism and hopefully help obviate any such temptation:

Broca was a humanist of the nineteenth century, but unable to shake the consuming prejudices, the human social diseases, of his time. He thought men superior to women, and whites superior to blacks… Broca, the founder of a society of freethinkers in his youth, believed in the importance of untrammelled inquiry and had lived his life in pursuit of that aim. His falling short of these ideals shows that someone as unstinting in the free pursuit of knowledge as Broca could still be deflected by endemic… bigotry. Society corrupts the best of us. It is a little unfair, I think, to criticize a person for not sharing the enlightenment of a later epoch, but it is also profoundly saddening that such prejudices were so extremely pervasive. The question raises nagging uncertainties about which of the conventional truths of our own age will be considered unforgivable bigotry by the next. One way to repay Paul Broca for this lesson which he has inadvertently provided us is to challenge, deeply and seriously, our most strongly held beliefs.1p29

Broca started the wheels in motion; French anthropologists, especially after his death, became highly motivated to link human brain size and surface topography to human traits and behaviors, but not entirely for purely scientific reasons; many were motivated by strong political or antireligious beliefs. They formed the Société Mutuelle d'Autopsie in 1876 to facilitate these studies. Some of the brains, including Broca's, still reside in the Musée de l'Homme in Paris. Nothing scientifically important was derived from these studies.

American physicians in Philadelphia, wanting to study the same phenomena, formed the American Anthropometric Society in 1889. Records show they were less diligent in collecting brains and were sometimes negligent in preserving them. A scandal related to the destruction and loss of Walt Whitman's brain, as well as those of prominent Philadelphia physicians, dragged the AAS into disrepute from which it never recovered. There is no evidence the organization had political or antireligious motivations, and several protestant clergy were lay members. In 1991, it was reported in the Philadelphia Daily News, that, at least some of the collection resided at the Wistar Institute and that “Osler's brain was liberated from Wistar's closet in April 1987, when it was taken to the Mütter Museum [Philadelphia, PA] … where it graced the annual meeting of the America Osler Society [AOS; NB: The author is aware it made a reappearance at the AOS meeting in Philadelphia in 2011].”58  The current disposition of the collection is not publically known.

Burt Wilder started collecting brains for his Cornell Brain Association in 1889. He was savvy in dealing with the press and used this to garner publicity for his efforts. He was proactive and competent, and, with solid succession planning, his collection flourished and the science progressed for decades. According to Wikipedia:

At its height, the collection contained over 600 and even as many as 1,200 brains and parts of brains. By the 1970s the collection had been neglected and enthusiasm for brain collecting had dimmed. The university culled the collection to 122 specimens. Part of the collection is on display in Uris Hall on the Cornell campus. Brains on display include those of several notable individuals [including Wilder].59 

While formal mutual autopsy societies disappeared about a century ago, people still will their bodies to researchers to study cerebral pathology. There are now brain banks for the study of and to provide tissue for research on dementias, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, multiple sclerosis, rare pediatric disorders, and other neurodegenerative disease.

Fortunately, unlike when General Faidherbe's brain was rejected by the Société Mutuelle d'Autopsie for having too much pathology, most academic centers have neuropathologists ready and waiting to handle such interesting cases.

The author thanks research assistant Will Hibbits, BA; Kristin Rodgers, MLIS, collections curator, The Ohio State University Health Sciences Library Medical Heritage Center; Lynn McIntyre, MD; Thomas Kryton, BFA; Charlotte Monroe; and the University of Calgary Interlibrary Loan Service.

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Author notes

The author has no relevant financial interest in the products or companies described in this article.