The Mercury News
Professor who studied Einstein’s brain dies
The UC Berkeley professor famous for examining Albert Einstein’s brain has died.
Marian Cleeves Diamond, 90, considered one of the founders of modern neuroscience, died July 25 at home in Oakland, the school announced.
In 1984, Diamond, a professor emerita of integrative biology at Cal, studied segments of Einstein’s brain and found that the renowned physicist had more of what are known as “support cells” than average.
She was the first to demonstrate that the brain can improve with enrichment and that animals, including children, growing up in impoverished environments can have a diminished capacity to learn.
The discovery was groundbreaking. “Her research demonstrated the impact of enrichment on brain development — a simple but powerful new understanding that has literally changed the world, from how we think about ourselves to how we raise our children,” George Brooks, a UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology, said in a statement. “Dr. Diamond showed anatomically, for the first time, what we now call plasticity of the brain. In doing so she shattered the old paradigm of understanding the brain as a static and unchangeable entity that simply degenerated as we age.”
There were disproportionately few female neuroscientists at the time and Diamond faced sexist backlash for her work. “Young lady, that brain cannot change,” one man reportedly told her after she delivered a talk.
Diamond persisted, later showing not only that enrichment can develop the brain, but that the finding is true for people of all ages.
The professor also was known for carrying a preserved human brain in a flowered hat box across campus, lifting it up during anatomy classes to inspire students, including Wendy Suzuki, a New York University neuroscientist who remembered during a 2011 TEDx talk that the moment made her want to be a neuroscientist.
The moment is preserved in the trailer for a 2016 documentary about Diamond, “My Love Affair with the Brain,” in which she quips, “When you see a lady with a hat box, you don’t know what she’s carrying, do you?”
Diamond was born Nov. 11, 1926 in Glendale, California, the youngest six children. She studied at the local community college for two years before transferring to UC Berkeley in 1946. She would go on to be the first female graduate student in the anatomy department at Cal, and later, the first female science instructor at Cornell University. She returned to UC Berkeley in 1960, eventually becoming the director of the Lawrence Hall of Science.
She was married to Arnold “Arne” Scheibel, also a renowned neuroanatomist, for 35 years. He passed away in April at the age of 94. She is survived by four children from her first marriage to the late Richard Diamond.
Throughout her life, Diamond practiced what she studied, creating math and science programs for students based on her work on enriched environments, and developing an Anatomy Enrichment Program for elementary school children in Berkeley and Albany.
She taught and conducted research until she retired in 2014 at the age of 87.
Among her last words, according to the school, were these: “If you’re going to live, live, you’ve got to be all in.”