The brains of dead Russian geniuses

What makes a man a genius? Russian neuroscientists were pondering this exactly this question in the early 1900s and did exactly what seemed sensible at the time – they collected and dissected the brains of some of the greatest cultural figures in a huge collection called ‘The Pantheon of Brains’.

It’s a fascinating story told in a recent article published in the medical journal Brain. Amazingly, the last brain was only added in 1989.

Rather fittingly, the collection contains the brains of some of the Russia’s greatest psychologists and neuroscientists and has many curious aspects to it, such as the mysterious death of its founder. After death, his brain was immediately added to the collection.

In 1927, Bekhterev came up with a plan to organize ‘The Pantheon of Brains’ in Leningrad in order to collect elite brains. It was a severe irony of fate that precisely when the question about creating the Pantheon had been positively solved, the very initiator of this creation, Bekhterev, suddenly passed away. The circumstances are still questionable.

On December 17, 1927, the First All-Union Congress of Neuropathologists and Psychiatrists was held in Moscow. Bekhterev, along with L. S. Minor and G. I. Rossolimo, was elected as honourable chairmen of the congress. On December 23rd, the last day of the congress, Bekhterev gave a presentation during the afternoon session. In the evening, symptoms of a gastrointestinal disorder started and 24 hs later, Bekhterev died of (as officially stated) acute heart failure. Without any further post-mortem pathoanatomical investigation, his brain was removed, in accordance with his will, and his body was cremated the next day. However, the idea did not fade away.

In 1928, the neuroanatomical laboratory of Vogt and his Russian colleagues were reorganized into the Moscow Brain Research Institute, where the structured collecting and mapping of the brains of famous Russians started. Bekhterev did not see his plan come to fruition, but his own brain enriched the collection of the Moscow Institute (the weight of his brain was 1720g). The collection acquired the brains of Soviet politicians, famous writers, poets, musicians, etc.

It is not surprising that these included the brains of prominent Russian neuroscientists, such as neurologist, G.I. Rossolimo (1860–1928) Р1543g; physiologist, I.P. Pavlov (1849–1936) Р1517g; neurologist, M. B. Kroll (1879–1939) Р1520g; psychiatrist, P. B. Gannushkin (1875–1933) Р1495g; psychologist, L.S. Vygotsky (1896–1934). During the Soviet period, the work of the Moscow Brain Research Institute continued behind closed doors.

The collection was still expanding as recently as 1989, when it acquired the brain of A.D. Sakharov [A. D. Sakharov (1921–89) was an eminent Soviet nuclear physicist, dissident and human rights activist. He was an advocate of civil liberties and reforms in the Soviet Union. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975] — 1440g.

You gotta love the fact that the authors have added exactly how much each person’s brain weighed.

Sadly, the full text isn’t available online, although Brain does fully release articles after a set amount of time (a year I think) so it should eventually see the light.

Link to PubMed entry for article.

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