They Put Their Brains To Work William Osler, Joseph Leidy, Edward Drinker Cope And William Pepper Were Among The Greatest Brains In Turn -of-the-century Philadelphia. And They Still Are . . .

Posted: April 03, 1991

As Sir William Osler lay dying in England in 1919, the world-renowned physician scribbled notes containing his last wishes. One note read: "My brain goes to the Wistar Institute of Philadelphia."

Osler, Joseph Leidy, Edward Drinker Cope, William Pepper - they were among the greatest brains in turn-of-the-century Philadelphia. They still are.

While these famed physicans and scientists are gone, their brains remain behind. Packed in formaldehyde and cotton, they sit in jars in a dusty, cluttered closet at the Wistar Institute in West Philadelphia.

Their donors were members of the American Anthropometric Society, a group of deep thinkers pledged to leave their brains behind for scientific study.

The society was founded in 1889, when Philadelphia was the center of American medicine and science. These brilliant men believed that careful study of the brain might eventually reveal the secrets that separate brilliance from stupidity.

The society is long-since disbanded but has left behind 22 pickled brains of its members. There may have been a few more that were either misplaced or, perhaps, that shared the fate of poor Walt Whitman.

The famous Camden poet also willed his brain to the group. However, sometime after Whitman's death in 1892, a clumsy lab assistant dropped his brain on the floor, causing so much damage that the brain was discarded.

Wistar, a private medical research center on the University of Pennsylvania campus, has had the brains in storage for decades.

Osler's brain was liberated from Wistar's closet in April 1987, when it was taken to the Mutter Museum, on 22nd Street near Chestnut, where it graced the annual meeting of the American Osler Society.

While not on public display, the museum made the brain available to visiting members of the Japanese Osler Society.

Osler (1849-1919), considered one of greatest healers and teachers of medicine, ended his career at Oxford University. But he spent about five years in Philadelphia in the 1880s and was a society founder. He was Walt Whitman's physician and probably solicited the poet's brain.

Studying the brains of geniuses, criminals and the common man was hot stuff for awhile. In the late 19th century, the Mutual Autopsy Society of Paris, the Cornell University Brain Association and the Philadelphia group were all busy collecting gray matter.

The first brains removed by the local society were those of Joseph and Phillip Leidy, brothers who died within a day of each other in 1891.

A local newspaper reported: "The new Anthropometric Society made an examination yesterday of the brains of its president (Joseph Leidy) "and his brother . . . The only results of interest gained from the preliminary examination of the brains of the brothers Leidy was that they were exactly the same weight and both considerably under the normal size."

The fact that brain size did not correlate with intelligence was already well known. The Leidys' small brains merely confirmed this.

The first deep study of the local brain collection was carried out by Dr. Edward A. Spitzka, Jefferson Medical College's anatomy chief, whose father was a founder of the society.

His report "A Study of the Brains of Six Eminent Scientists and Scholars Belonging to the American Anthropometric Society" was published by the American Philosophical Society in 1907.

It was Spitzka's report that revealed the sad fate of Whitman's brain. He also wrote that two of the eight brains in the society's care were in such poor shape that he couldn't examine them.

His illustrated study pushed a pet theory that intelligence was closely related to the mass of the corpus callosum, white fibers in the brain.

In 1928, three other brains, including the great Osler's, were studied by Dr. Henry H. Donaldson, a director of Wistar and an eventual brain donor


Donaldson suggested that, perhaps, good nutrition was the only significant factor in the development of the two groups of brains.

Except for the two studies and the honors given the Osler brain, the only other brain in the Wistar collection to earn its keep belonged to the great 19th-century dinosaur-bone hunter, Edward Drinker Cope. It was displayed in a Wistar exhibit honoring Cope but is now back in the closet.

Cope, who collected bones of extinct animals, decided to leave his own skeleton to science as well as his brain. The skeleton is now in a box at the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania.

comments powered by Disqus