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The University of Texas is Short a Few Brains

That’s the kind of headline that I’m pretty sure is going up in newspapers at rival school Texas A&M, whose rivalry with UT goes back to 1915, a rivalry so well known as to have been featured on a Wheaties box. Lots of jokes almost certainly are currently making the rounds there about a shortage of brain-power and so forth. But the truth behind the japes is pretty weird.

The Austin State Hospital (an asylum) has been around since the 1800s. From the 50s to the 80s the head pathologist was collecting abnormal brains from his autopsies on mental patients housed there. Forget about all your ‘mad scientist’ imaginings, it was all pretty standard. After gathering about 200 of them, it was decided that space was too limited at the hospital. After a bit of a contest with Harvard Medical School, the brains were donated to UT’s Animal Resource Center. They were looked at as an important research tool, being used to examine how those with mental illnesses brains differed from the normal ones and how such diseases impacted the ol’ grey matter. Included in the batch was even the brain of Charles Whitman, who infamously in 1966 took a sniper rifle to the top of the UT tower and killed 16 people.

In 2013 a photographer, Adam Voorhes, who had found out about the collection, started photographing them and discovered that some of them were missing. And not just a few. HALF of the collection. He and a journalist, Alex Hannaford, began the quest to discover what had happened to them. But there seems to be no small amount of confusion about it.

In the mid-90s, Dr. Jerry Fineg, the Center’s director at the time, asked the collection’s curator, Tim Schallert, to move half the jars elsewhere to make more room. When he went to do so, he discovered the collection was no longer complete. He asked Fineg about it and he reportedly told Schallert that he got rid of many of them, although he never told him where. Why he would have asked Schallert in the first place to move the brains when he already knew he had is another question entirely. Fineg, now retired, was asked where they went and he told the questers that as far as he knew they were sent back to the Austin State Hospital…by Schallert. Schallert of course denies it. The Hospital says when they originally gave the brains to UT was the last they saw of them…and the circle goes ever on.

“I have been racking my BRAIN trying to remember where those brains went and although ASH says they know nothing about them I still believe that is where they went … SORRY.” said the now retired Fineg to Hannaford in a recent email. Not sure why the Austin State Hospital would lie about it…UNLESS THE INMATES ARE RUNNING THE ASYLUM!! Hey, UT, did a guy named Igor come by asking about the brain of Abby Normal?

You can read more about the mystery in the book published by Voorhes and Hannaford, “Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital”. Will we ever solve the mystery? I bet Texas A&M hopes we don’t.

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