Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Preserving the Brain

In 1898, former Civil War surgeon Burt Green Wilder, M.D., launched an impressive collection consisting of whole human brains (perhaps the first such collection in the US). According to Cornell University's Chronicle Online:

Wilder wanted to see if differences could be detected in size, shape, weight and amount of convolution between the brains of "educated and orderly persons" and women, murderers, racial minorities and the mentally ill. Eventually, it was concluded that such differences could not be detected, at least not by the naked eye or any 19th-century tools.

The collection, containing brains of the likes of Helen Hamilton Gardener, suffragist; E.B Titchener, "dean of experimental psychology in America;" and Edward Howard Rulloff, convicted murderer, grew to contain at least 600 specimens. Sadly, by 1978, most of the specimens were "dried up," and many were "purged."

Currently, eight brains and their biographies are on display in Cornell's Uris Hall. The remainder of the collection is "stored in a basement closet." The collection, maintained in Cornell's Dept. of Psychology, contains "14 brains of prominent people and 12 brains of less known or infamous people."

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