April 11, 2003

Brain Collection Displayed for All

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“The display of human brains, particularly those identified with particular individuals, evokes a variety of reactions; from horror, to distaste, to curiosity, to fascination.”

Experiencing this first-hand only takes a short trip to Uris Hall’s second floor, where a display case featuring those words is home to Cornell’s Wilder Brain Collection.

The collection, which at one time featured 1,600 animal and human brains, was founded in the 1880s by Dr. Burt Green Wilder, Cornell’s first zoologist. The University stopped accepting additional brains in 1940, and at present, only 70 remain, all of which are human. The brains, which are preserved in formaline and stored in glass jars, are still used by students in some Cornell classes. They are occasionally taken to local schools as well. Eight of the brains remain on display in Uris, along with short biographies of the people who donated them.

At one time, the brains in the collection were actually studied. Elements such as the size, weight, amount of convolution and relative size of different parts of the brains were measured and recorded. The purpose, according to Prof. Barbara L. Finlay, psychology, curator of the collection, “was to do a kind of phrenology, trying to map special abilities onto convolutions or bumps on the brain.”

In doing so, the original researchers hoped to find differences in brain structures that corresponded to different personalities or kinds of abilities.

“That’s almost precisely what people are doing today with 100 years [of] greater technology
94 Finlay said.

There was also an interest in examining ethnic and racial differences in brain size and shape.

“That was the era of attempting to make scientific what people believed to be the case about race differences,” Finlay said.

One of Wilder’s published studies was on Civil War soldiers, both black and white, and revealed no noticeable differences between the two sets of brains. Similarly, no link between brain size or shape and ability was ever established, Finlay added.

Until the late ’70s when Finlay took over, the brains were located “in the deepest, darkest basement” in Stimson Hall, she said. The collection had been neglected and become disorganized. Consequently, “there’s no concordance between the brains and biographies except for the ones that are on display,” Finlay said.

The fact that the brains cannot be rematched with their owners is ironic, considering that the original studies hoped to show a link between brain structure and the areas people excelled in.

“It’s a testimony to the failure of that enterprise,” Finlay said, but she added that no scientific research is ever a true failure because people learn from what does not work.

While all brains on display are relatively well-known, some of the more interesting ones belonged to Helen Hamilton Gardener; Edward Howard Rulloff; Simon Henry Gage 1877; Prof. Edward Bradford Titchener, psychology and Wilder.

Gardener, a publicist and author, was involved in the women’s suffrage movement and was vice president of the National Women’s Suffrage Association. She left her brain to the collection “to help provide superior female brains for future research” upon her death in 1925.

The most infamous member of the brain collection, Rulloff was suspected of five murders in the Ithaca/Binghamton area, including those of his wife and child who were never found. He was convicted of two murders and hanged on May 18, 1871. While Cornea>

After graduating from Cornell, where he studied under Wilder, Gage returned the next year as a professor of biological sciences. His son, Henry Phelps Gage, is also a member of the collection.

Titchener is known as the “dean of experimental psychology in America.” He was a professor at Cornell and pioneered the concept of structuralism, the idea that psychology should be a science and not part of philosophy.

The man who started it all, Wilder, left his own brain to the collection as well. An interesting part of his legacy is that he advocated for the now-common practice of having medical students dissect cats before they dissect humans.

And while not actually a brain, a preserved piece of the fabled Cornell Pumpkin is also a memorable highlight of the collection.

People who visit the collection may notice that the liquid surrounding some of the brains is a different color or that some of the brains look somewhat flat. Finlay attributes the different colors to the various original preservation methods used. As for the flattening, she points out that some of them have been “lying on essentially the top of their head for 100 years.”

Many of Wilder’s own papers and publications are available through the Rare and Manuscripts Collection in Kroch Library.

“I think it’s really interesting that we have something like that on campus,” said Dan Mulhall ’06, who recently visited the collection. “Not a hell of a lot of other schools can say that they have a bunch of brains in glass jars.”

When asked if he would ever consider donating his brain, Mulhall replied, “Only if I can be put next to Rulloff’s.”

Archived article by Courtney Potts