That time when a bunch of people all agreed to preserve each other's brains
On the mutual autopsy societies of the late 1800s
A mutual autopsy society is kind of like a mutual aid society, but way more metal. These organizations, which started in the late 1800s, were based on the idea that when one of the members died, the other members would autopsy, preserve, and study their brain, in order to advance science.
As far as I can tell, the main two mutual autopsy societies were:
Société Mutuelle d'Autopsie. This was started in 1876 in Paris, France, and was the first such organization. They preserved at least 14 brains and seem to have operated until WWII. It’s unclear to me what happened to those brains after that.
American Anthropometric Society. This was started at the Wistar Institute in 1889 in Philadelphia, USA, and seems to have been inspired by the Société Mutuelle d'Autopsie. They preserved at least 8 brains. Some of these might still be around. That includes William Osler’s brain, which was shown at the America Osler Society annual meeting in 2011 in Philadelphia.
In addition, there was the Cornell Brain Association. This was at, well, Cornell, which is in Ithaca New York. This was started by Burt Wilder as a splinter group away from the American Anthropometric Society. It seems to have been more of a “brain collection” than a mutual autopsy society, with Wilder at the head.
There is a lot of important history about scientific racism and ableism (now debunked) related to these brain collections that others have discussed. For example, Cathy Gere’s article discusses this.
Instead, I will focus on the parallels of these organizations to contemporary cryonics and brain preservation.
James Wright calls these organizations “brain clubs”. In some ways, brain clubs are more similar to cryonics organizations than brain banks are. This is because brain banks don’t care as much about the identity of the person who donated the brain. If one person can’t donate their brain for any reason, it is typically discarded and the family pursues other funerary arrangements.
Mutual autopsy societies, on the other hand, very much cared about the identity of the person donating the brain. This led to many of the same triumphs and challenges that cryonics has faced.
For example, it seems they occasionally did the procedure against the family’s wishes if the person themselves wanted to donate their brain. They also had issues when the person died when traveling, such as William Osler, who died in Oxford. When William Pepper died on vacation in California, it took a week to transport his body back to Philadelphia so the brain could be removed and preserved.
As it turns out, I simply have too many thoughts on the topic to write this post in a coherent narrative. And luckily I don’t have to since this is just a random blog post! So instead, here are some discombobulated thoughts on these societies:
1: The preservation methods reflected the best methods available at the time. For example, the France group initially used a complicated fixative based on chromate salts that required the chemicals to be prepared for around one month. They eventually stored the brains in alcohol. I think it’s fair to guess that the microstructure of the brains preserved in this way was pretty damaged by this procedure, although I would like to see data on this.
Once the formaldehyde revolution took over the world in the 1890s, that seems to have been the method that the organizations switched to. After all, it is only natural to change brain preservation methods when new data and scientific consensus emerge.
2: The motivations of the French group were quite dissident. Many of the members included prominent people from the political left and far left. As James Wright describes it, they were rebelling against the beliefs of the majority of the people in their society:
From its beginning, the Société Mutuelle d'Autopsie’s membership was popular amongst atheists and certain other left-leaning intellectuals; as France was secularizing during its Third Republic (circa 1870), intellectuals wanted to flaunt this blatant act of desecration and deconsecration of the temple of human body in the faces of the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. Furthermore, if physical features of a decedent’s brain could explain all aspects of their mental functions and personalities, there was no need to postulate the existence of an immortal soul. For the membership, the act of donating one’s brain helped offset the disheartening consequences of having neither a soul nor future prospects of an afterlife; this allowed the donor to convert his/her meaningless death into an opportunity to advance science. Hecht likened the testament documents to a Catholic confession and dinners celebrating the death and dissection of a member to a ‘‘secular version of the Catholic Last Rites.’’ Many members used their testament and wills to state they did not want a funeral or even a burial and that all that remained of their bodies, after any scientifically useful portions had been removed at autopsy by the Société, should simply be discarded as garbage; this was in sharp contract to Catholic reverent funeral ceremonies.
3: At least some members of the Société paid annual dues, but it is not reported that they paid anything when they died. To become a member, they also had to provide a will leaving their brains and a “testament” describing their personalities. This makes an interesting comparison to some cryonics models, where most of the payment is due at death.
4: Families were often resistant to the procedure and this led people to join the societies privately. An article in an 1898 issue of the Neihart Herald described the situation at the American Anthropometric Society:
This sentimental opposition to the mutilation of the dead is one of the great difficulties with which the society has had to contend in its relations with the families of members. So it is that the organization has had to become, in a measure, a secret society, and there are now enrolled upon the membership list the names of some men whose connection with the organization will never be made public. Among the medical men there is no such disposition to conceal their affiliation with the society, although their immediate relatives may not be quite so case hardened.
5: The press loved to publicize and sensationalize the idea of brain clubs. It seems that this morbid fascination, and its capitalization by media organizations, which also happens all the time with cryonics, is not a new phenomenon.
6: Succession planning: not just for family offices on HBO. Wilder messed this up and didn’t have a plan for his collection after he died. While there were once more than 600 brains, many were disposed of, some of which were reportedly deteriorating (I wonder why?). As of 2005, the NYT reported that there were about 70 brains left.
7: The saga of Walt Whitman’s brain is a particularly curious case.
Whitman's family disapproved of the autopsy, but he had provided verbal consent to his doctor, who was a member of the American Anthropometric Society, as well as to another member. So the autopsy happened over the objections of his family, and the brain was removed and transported to Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, the brain was destroyed once it arrived at the institute.
Dr. Henry Cattell, who was responsible, tried to cover this up with a variety of stories that did not make sense, such as stating that an assistant carelessly dropped the brain. This didn’t make sense because why would they not at least keep the fragments?
When this was reported in a scientific journal, it led to somewhat of a national scandal as Whitman was, of course, quite famous. As an executor of his estate noted: "I cannot understand it. The fact that such an institution should permit the care of such precious property to an attendant who probably had no idea of the value of what he was handling is bad enough."
The true cause was unknown until Cattell's diary was sold on eBay in 2012. The diary revealed that the brain had been placed in a jar of fixative and forgotten about for several months, allowing the fixative to evaporate and the brain to decompose.
In addition, in his bid to keep the deception hidden, one of his laboratory assistants blackmailed Cattell, causing him to be at one point suicidal.
This story could also have been the inspiration for the classic scene in the 1931 film Frankenstein, in which Fritz drops the jar labeled "normal brain" and provides a murderer's brain labeled "abnormal" instead for Frankenstein's monster.
There are some parallels here to the Ted Williams cryonics case at Alcor. Takeaways:
A: It’s hard to underestimate the lure of celebrity. Intellectuals among us can pretend to not care about celebrities, but almost always, we do care. We’re only human.
But making exceptions for celebrities is likely to backfire. This scandal irreparably harmed the reputation of the American Anthropometric Society. It doesn’t seem to have recovered.
B: Be cautious about assistants. They can cause significant damage to people and organizations. Like Larry Johnson at Alcor. This may be especially the case if they don’t care about the cause.
C: If you make a mistake, admit it. If Cattell had simply admitted that the brain had decomposed to a certain degree, things might have turned out much differently. It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.
8: The reasons that Wilder left the American Anthropometric Society in 1891 are reminiscent of a lot of the splintering of cryonics organizations over the years. Mainly the issues were geography and control. Here’s how Wright describes the break:
The articles of incorporation of this Philadelphia society required that all brains should be disposed of at the headquarters of the society. From the first Prof. Wilder was not in accord with this restriction, and in December of 1891 he resigned, giving among others as a reason for his resignation: ‘‘My own circumstances and plans for investigation would preclude any such active co-operation as might naturally be expected. With hearty good wishes for the success of the society as a local or university organization for the increase and dissemination of important and accurate knowledge respecting the brain, I remain…’’
9: This is a truly remarkable quote by Wilder:
A short time ago, while in conversation with a group of student friends, he made a most startling prophecy for the future of man. ‘‘It is no play of the imagination,’’ said he, ‘‘to say that some time in the future the body of man will not exist – he will be just brain… The eternal law of nature, which says that all thing that are not used shall not exist, is at work with man. Man is not using his body, but his brain, therefore the body must cease to be. Evolution works slowly, but truly.”
Seems to me like a precursor of today’s notion of whole-brain emulation. Following most proposals for how to do WBE, one would still have a body, but in a virtual world, the body would be more superfluous. If Wilder was right, perhaps eventually the body could be replaceable altogether, while the information in the brain would still be essential.
10: Wilder’s brain is reportedly still preserved in formalin in Ithaca. What condition is it in? I don’t know, for two reasons.
First, I don’t know what the typical or optimal outcomes are for a brain stored in formalin for many decades. Second, I also don’t know about any specifics about the way that Wilder’s brain has been preserved, such as the amount of autolysis prior to preservation, replacement of formalin over time, other additives in the fluid, temperature fluctuations, or light exposure.
What percent of the biomolecule-annotated connectome could still be inferred based on the current state of his preserved brain? That seems like an open and interesting question to me.
Edidin P. In search of answers from the great brains of Cornell. The New York Times. Published May 24, 2005. Accessed February 12, 2023.
The greatest hitter who ever lived on by Wright Thompson. ESPN.com.
Wright JR. Société mutuelle d’autopsie, american anthropometric society, and the wilder brain collection. Arch Pathol Lab Med.
Gere C. A brief history of brain archiving. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences. 2003;12(4):396-410.
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