Book documents collection of forgotten brains
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.