The Mystery Brains of the Texas State Lunatic Asylum (Update)
UPDATE 12/03/14: After this story received national media attention, UT Austin now says the 100 brains that were unaccounted for are not missing. In fact, they were deemed unsuitable for research or teaching and were destroyed sometime around 2002. The University says it will continue to investigate the circumstances of their destruction
ORIGINAL STORY 11/21/14: For decades, a rare collection of human remains sat in a basement at the University of Texas at Austin. Now, it is getting renewed attention, thanks in part, to Austin photographer Adam Voorhes.
Back in 2011, Voorhes went to take a picture of a brain for a magazine cover. He went to see a guy at UT named Professor Tim Schallert. While they were there, Schallert asked if Voorhes wanted to see his collection.
So, they made their way to a storage closet in the back of Schallert's lab. What was inside set Voorhes on a months long quest for answers about a group of people who died decades earlier — answers that largely remain elusive.
Inside the storage closet, there were dozens of human brains. There were about a hundred brains in total, all in glass jars.
“Some of [the jars] have one, some of them have three," Voorhes says. "We’re kind of immediately struck by that they don’t look like normal human brains, they look… different.”
They were odd shapes and strange colors. Voorhes could tell there was something wrong with the brains.
Voorhes says, looking at the brains, it was hard not to think about what life was like for their owners. "It was something that stuck with me,” he says.
After he left, Voorhes found himself thinking about these brains a lot. He went back and took hundreds of pictures of them. Those photos would eventually be the basis of a book coming out next month, called Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital.
Voorhes knew nothing about the former owners, other than what was on a small label attached to each brain jar. Basically, just what they died from and when.
So he called his friend, Alex Hannaford, a journalist working in Austin at the time.
They didn’t have a lot to go on, other than a few details from Professor Schallert. He told them the collection came from the Austin State Hospital, what they used to call the Texas State Lunatic Asylum. The brains were collected by a doctor there named Coleman de Chenar. It’s not clear how legal it all was, but de Chenar collected a lot of them. 200 in all. They date between the 1950s and 1970s.
By 1986, the Asylum no longer wanted the brains. So they looked for some other institution to take them. Several universities wanted the collection, as it was quite rare. Yale, Harvard and several other big schools offered money for them, according to Hannaford's research.
"The Battle for the Brains," they called it.
But the hospital wanted the brains to stay in Texas. So they picked UT-Austin.
They put them in a closet in Schallert’s lab. Schallert says he used them for demonstration from time to time. Some were loaned out to other professors. One of them appears to have been used for a research paper on Huntington's disease back in the late 1980s.
25 years later, Voorhes shows up. But now, there’s only a hundred brains in the closet. Half the collection was missing.
“They just vanished,” Voorhes says.
“A hundred brains have gone missing," says Hannaford. "Have they all been given to someone? Sold to someone? Stolen? I mean, we just don’t know.”
Schallert suspects they were simply borrowed or given away by someone over the years.
So that’s mystery number one.
UPDATE: The University issued the following statement about the missing brains:
As researchers and teachers, we understand the potential scientific value of all of our holdings and take our roles as stewards of them very seriously. We are committed to treating the brain specimens with respect and are disheartened to learn that some of them may be unaccounted for. The university plans to investigate the circumstances surrounding this collection since it came here nearly 30 years ago. The brains that are now on campus are actively used as a teaching tool and are carefully curated by faculty. As our investigation proceeds, we will seek to confirm whether the specific details that have been reported about the other specimens are accurate.
The 'Lunatic Asylum'
Mystery number two: Whose brains are these? The collection dates back to the 1950s. Hannaford looked into the asylum.
“When it was built, [the Texas State Lunatic Asylum] was sort of revolutionary because it was built in a very sort of Victorian principals: big building, lots of air, they were all about the air flowing through and letting these people walk around the grounds," Hannaford says. "It was all about this holistic approach to health care which was quite progressive. What wasn’t very progressive was the sort of lobotomies and various other sort of medicine they gave them. Our understanding of mental illness has changed a lot since then. Now with drugs, you can bring [a severe mental illness] under control and [the patient] can be out within a week.”
But what about the individuals? Each brain is in a jar, each labeled with a case number, a date and a visual description of the brain. Hannaford asked the state hospital for the files that corresponded with the case numbers on the labels.
That turned out to be a dead end. The hospital said the records were likely destroyed after a certain number of years passed.
So that’s mystery number two. We may never know who owned these brains or what their lives were like.
Except, maybe, for one brain.
Schallert knew that there was one brain among the collection that belonged to Charles Whitman, the man who killed 16 people before he was killed by police, in the infamous UT Tower shooting in 1966.
After he was killed, police found a note from Whitman. It made clear that Whitman knew the violent feelings he was having were not normal. In the note, he asked that his brain be examined by a pathologist. The pathologist at the time was Coleman de Chenar, the doctor from the mental hospital. de Chenar found a small tumor in Whitman's brain. There was some disagreement about whether it was the reason for Whitman’s sudden violence. Regardless, Whitman’s body was buried in Florida. His brain stayed behind in de Chenar's collection.
Looking through an autopsy report on Whitman, Hannaford and Schallert found a number that matched the format on the brain jars.
"So literally we ran, me and Tim and his assistant ran back into the store cupboard and went through these hundred brains to see if Whitman's might be there," says Hannaford.
They furiously scanned all the labels looking for a match, but Whitman’s brain was not there. Hannaford says it must be among the 100 brains missing from the collection.
Estranged Brains Could Lead to New Discoveries
There are some mysteries these brains might yet solve. Ever since Voorhes dug them out of the closet and started taking pictures of them, the brains have gotten more attention.
“One of the main things we want to do is high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging scans of the brains. So we can look inside them without actually having to cut the brains open," says Dr. Larry Cormack, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at UT. "Kind of like if you have an archeological site, you want to dig part of it up, but then you want to preserve it. Because people in the future might have a lot better tools. Same way here. We’d like to learn as much as we can now, but not destroy the brains so that in the future, they’ll be available when maybe better tools are available.”
“One of the interesting things we can do is we can look for disorders that patients didn’t have any drugs [for], like they do now," says Schallert. "We can compare them and maybe we’ll find some interesting things about what the drugs do."
Into the Light of Day
The brains may soon get a new home, too. They’ve been moved out of the basement storage closet.
They might soon be put on public display.
“That to me is the important thing here," says Hannaford. "I just think that it’s great that we can actually not just stuff them in a cupboard.”
Voorhes and Hannaford's book will be published Dec. 2.
They’re hoping someone who knows something more about the brains will read it and get in touch with them. Voorhes has already heard from the person who was the last to care for them back at the state hospital. Perhaps she, and others out there, can shed more light on these old, forgotten brains.