Hot Docs Review: The Man Who Stole Einstein’s Brain (Michelle Shephard, 2023)

Based on the title alone, you’d be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that The Man Who Stole Einstein’s Brain was some sort of strange, kitschy sci-fi movie from the ’50s rather than a documentary about a real life occurrence, though I suppose the story told in Michelle Shephard’s documentary is just as strange and unbelievable in its own way.

The tale begins, as you’d expect, with the death of Albert Einstein. Things take a bit of an unexpected turn once pathologist Thomas Stoltz Harvey takes it upon himself to remove Einstein’s brain, preserve it and then take it into his own personal custody for the purposes of studying it in the hopes of gaining some insight on what it was exactly that made the man a genius. Even more unexpectedly, Harvey then manages to convince Einstein’s family and the executor of his estate, Dr. Otto Nathan, that he should keep the brain and following that, goes on to do … nothing much at all with the brain for several decades.

It’s a bizarre yet fascinating story, and Shephard makes good use of audio clips from journalist Carolyn Abraham’s interviews with the man himself alongside interviews with his friends and family to paint a fairly sympathetic portrait of Harvey. That the story ends with a study being done decades after the fact indicating that there was something unique about the brain does help to vindicate Harvey’s decision and helps to make this story more than just an odd footnote to Einstein’s life story.

Posted on by Paul in Hot Docs