[Editor’s note: below is a follow up article to the one posted in this blog on Thursday: https://talltalestogo.wordpress.com/2014/12/04/haiku-to-you-thursday-brain-drain/.]
UT: Missing brains were destroyed
By Benjamin Wermund | December 3, 2014
The bizarre mystery of the University of Texas at Austin’s missing brains came to a swift end Wednesday, as officials revealed that the preserved organs had been destroyed more than a decade ago. But some questions remain.
One hundred brains, kept in formaldehyde-filled jars, were reported missing this week from the state’s premier research university. About 200 brains dating from the 1950s, which originally belonged to patients at the Austin State Hospital, were given to UT for research in the 1980s.
About half of them briefly went unaccounted for and officials spent Tuesday and Wednesday scrambling to find them. A preliminary university investigation found that UT environmental health and safety officials disposed of multiple brain specimens in 2002 in accordance with protocols concerning biological waste.
But questions remain — including why the brains were destroyed — and the university said it would appoint an investigative committee to get answers.
“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,” UT officials said in a statement. “The university will also investigate how the decision was made to dispose of some of these specimens and how all brain specimens have been handled since the university received its collection from the Austin State Hospital in the 1980s.”
The brains were in poor condition when the university received them in the 1980s and were not suitable for research or teaching, the university said in a statement. Workers disposed of between 40 and 60 jars, some of which contained multiple human brains, the statement said.
Despite reports that the missing brains included that of Charles Whitman, the sniper who went on a shooting spree from the UT Tower in 1966, UT officials said they had no evidence that Whitman’s brain had been destroyed with the others. Other reports Wednesday that the brains had been given to UT campuses in San Antonio also appeared to be false, UT said. The university will continue to investigate both claims, however.
“We’re moving at breakneck [Editor’s note: An interesting word choice considering speed to figure this all out,” UT spokesman Gary Susswein said Wednesday. “We obviously take this very seriously.”
Author Alex Hannaford discovered the brains had gone missing while reporting for his book, “Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital.” Hannaford detailed the mystery in an article for the Atlantic, published Tuesday.
Timothy Schallert, a neuroscientist at UT and curator of the university’s collection of preserved brains, told Hannaford that by the mid-1990s, about 200 of the organs, sealed in jars, were taking up much-needed space at UT’s Animal Resources Center. Jerry Fineg, the center’s then-director, asked Schallert if he would move half of the jars elsewhere.
Eventually, Schallert discovered about half of the brains had gone missing. “I never found out exactly what happened—whether they were just given away, sold or whatever—but they just disappeared,” he told Hannaford.
Hannaford said Wednesday that UT still has a lot of questions to answer. He questioned whether 100 brains could possibly fit into the 40 to 60 jars UT says it destroyed.
“It leaves the question, are there some that are unaccounted for?” he said, adding that it was “pretty obvious that Whitman’s brain was part of the collection.”
Coleman de Chenar, a pathologist at the Austin State Hospital in the 1960s, conducted the autopsy on Whitman, who had left a note for police, urging physicians to examine his brain for signs of mental illness. Whitman’s brain reportedly ended up in the collection of specimens then housed at the hospital that was later given to UT, Hannaford said.
“As far as I’m concerned, it leaves some sort of open ended questions,” Hannaford said.