Book doc­u­ments col­lec­tion of for­got­ten brains

Modern Healthcare - - OUTLIERS ASIDES & INSIDES -

When Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can asked pho­tog­ra­pher Adam Voorhes to pho­to­graph a hu­man brain stored at the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin, he knew he was in for a pe­cu­liar as­sign­ment.

But what he didn’t know was that over 100 dam­aged, de­formed or rare hu­man brains are stored there, re­moved from de­ceased pa­tients who were treated from the 1950s to the mid-1980s at a psy­chi­atric fa­cil­ity. After hear­ing that there were few records of the brains’ past, Voorhes de­cided he needed to doc­u­ment them for his lat­est photo book, Mal­formed: For­got­ten Brains of the Texas State Men­tal Hos­pi­tal, writ­ten with Alex Han­naford.

It tells the story of the col­lec­tion, which went to UT in 1986 after the univer­sity won a “bat­tle of the brains” against Har­vard and other prom­i­nent in­sti­tu­tions for the valu­able re­search spec­i­mens. After that, the col­lec­tion seems to even­tu­ally have been for­got­ten and ne­glected. “It needed to be doc­u­mented just for the sake of pre­serv­ing it, at least vis­ually pre­serv­ing it, be­cause it has al­ready de­cayed so much,” Voorhes said.

All that re­main of the pa­tients’ records are the ba­sic di­ag­noses noted on the brain con­tain­ers. It’s not just the records that are miss­ing: Roughly 100 brains that were once part of the col­lec­tion are un­ac­counted for. Among the miss­ing brains is one pur­ported to have a grisly UT link: it’s from Charles Whit­man, an en­gi­neer­ing stu­dent and for­mer Marine sharp­shooter who in 1966 climbed to the ob­ser­va­tion deck of the UT Tower and ran­domly shot 48 peo­ple, killing 16 be­fore he was killed by po­lice.

“We think somebody may have taken the brains, but we don’t know at all for sure,” Tim Schallert, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor, told the Austin (Texas) Amer­i­can-States­man.

The la­bels on some of the con­tain­ers are only partly leg­i­ble.

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