About 100 human brains stored in formaldehyde jars, missing from the University of Texas (UT) at Austin since the mid-1990s, caused a stir Wednesday afternoon as they went from missing, to discovered—to gone forever.
Although missing for two decades, the brains gained media fame recently as a book chronicling their story was released.
The tale began 28 years ago, when Austin State Hospital transferred roughly 200 brains to the university as part of a "temporary possession" agreement. When ASH began looking for a new home for the brain collection in the 1980s, multiple institutions vied to be selected. UT even beat out Harvard Medical School in the "battle for the brains."
"There is so much information available in those brain tissues, and so many researchers are crying out to get such tissue," Edward Bird, a UT associate professor of neuropathy told the Associated Press in 1986.
Schallert's lab could only hold 100 of the specimens, so the other half were stored in the school's Animal Resources Center basement. The remaining brains are now in the Norman Hackerman Building undergoing high-resolution scanning. The MRI images will be used for research and teaching, while keeping the brains intact, says Cormack.
In the mid-1990s, Schallert noticed the brains were no longer there. Hoping to make more shelf space, he went to the basement to move them—but the brains had vanished. The director at the time said only that he had gotten rid of them.
"I never found out exactly what happened—whether they were just given away, sold or whatever—but they just disappeared."
The possession agreement required the school to remove any data that could possibly connect the brain to the person from whom it came, but one missing organ was reported to have belonged to Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old engineering student who fatally shot 16 people and injured 32 on campus in 1966.
"It would make sense it would be in this [missing] group. We can't find that brain," says Schallert. However, UT officials deny any evidence that Whitman's brain was among the group in question.
Brains found—but case not closed
Then, for a short time Wednesday afternoon, the brains were reported found at the University of Texas San Antonio. "They read a media report of the missing brains and called to say: 'We got those brains!" Schallert explained.
But that claim turned out to be false.
Finally, late Wednesday afternoon, a university investigation solved the riddle. Officials uncovered records showing that UT health and safety officials destroyed the brains in 2002, following protocols for biological waste.
But questions remain, such as exactly why the brains were destroyed and whether the university should change its policies for handling such specimens. UT officials announced Wednesday that they will form an investigative committee to resolve these issues (AP/U.S. News & World Report, 12/2; Stanglin, USA Today, 12/3; Hannaford, Atlantic, 12/2; Herman, AP/AP News Archive, 8/3/1986; Muskal, "Nation Now," Los Angeles Times, 12/3).
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