The curious case of Texas’ missing brains leaves minds wandering

4 Dec 2014

Brain specimen by Asmus/Shutterstock

Reports that 100 brain specimens went missing from the University of Texas (UT), Austin, have spawned a number of theories – but the university’s investigation has quickly stopped minds from racing.

It all started with an article by Alex Hannaford, who, along with photographer Adam Voorhes, has authored a photobook about the specimen brain collection held by the university.

This collection of human brains in jars of formalin (a solution of formaldehyde and water) was originally assembled by one Dr Coleman de Chenar from the 1950s to 1980s. The collection originally belonged to the Austin State Hospital but was bequeathed to UT in the Eighties.

In his article for The Atlantic, Hannaford claims that limited shelf space in the UT Animal Resources Centre, where the brains were stored, led to half the collection being moved to the basement around the mid-1990s, and that’s where the confusion begins.

100 brains ‘disappeared’

Hannaford quotes UT’s Prof Tim Schallert, a neuroscientist, as saying, “I never found out exactly what happened — whether they were just given away, sold or whatever — but they just disappeared.”

The very idea of 100 missing brains prompted broad speculation, including claims that students may have stolen the brains for pranks and that some had surfaced at other universities.

Hannaford also asserted that the brain of Charles Whitman, the notorious Texas Bell Tower sniper who, in 1966, shot and killed 16 people, was part of the collection. However, UT has formally stated that there is no definitive evidence to support this claim, as all identifying information was removed from the specimens when they were donated.

Furthermore, a preliminary investigation by the university has revealed that the UT environmental health and safety officials disposed of 40 to 60 jars containing brain specimens around 2002.

The specimens in question had been deemed in poor condition by faculty members and some of the jars contained more than one (which could account for the numerical discrepancy of losing 100 brains but disposing of 40 to 60 jars).

The investigation continues

UT staff worked with a biological waste contractor to ensure that all of this was done safely and in accordance with protocols concerning biological waste.

UT continues to look into the very serious claim that additional specimens were sent to other universities or health institutions, and this investigation is ongoing in line with an audit of how the university has been handling its brain specimens since the 1980s via a broader investigative committee.

“We are committed to treating the brain specimens with respect and are disheartened to learn that some of them may be unaccounted for,” said the university in a statement.

The remaining 100 brains specimens appear to be intact and are actively used as teaching tools at the university.

Brain specimen image by Asmus via Shutterstock

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic