If you had a bunch of brains floating in jars, you probably wouldn’t lose them too easily. However, that’s precisely what the University of Texas in Austin did over 10 years ago. Luckily, the mystery of the missing brains has seemingly been solved.
Apparently, about 100 of them were accidentally destroyed.
From the 1950s through to the 1970s, a resident pathologist at the Austin State Hospital, which was formerly known as the Texas State Lunatic Asylum, began collecting the brains of deceased patients in jars of formaldehyde. This was during a time when surgical lobotomies and electroshock therapy were quite common. When Dr. Coleman de Chenar — the pathologist collecting the specimens — died in 1985, he’d amassed about 200 brains. Rumor had it that one of the brains in the collection was that of Charles Whitman, the Texas Bell Tower Sniper, though university officials disputed the claim.
In 1986, the Austin State Hospital gave the Animal Resources Center at the University of Texas in Austin the collection of brains under a “temporary possession” agreement. Once there, neuroscience students used them to study ailments like Huntington’s disease, depression, Parkinson’s disease, strokes, and more.
People realized the brains had disappeared when Alex Hannaford and Adam Voorhees began asking questions. They were working on a photo book, Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital, which is due out soon.
After some investigation, the university claims the 100 missing brains been destroyed in 2002.
“A preliminary university investigation has revealed that UT environmental health and safety officials disposed of multiple brain specimens in approximately 2002 in accordance with protocols concerning biological waste,” said the University of Texas in a statement on December 3.
“This was done in coordination with faculty members who determined that the specimens had been in poor condition when the university received them in the 1980s and were not suitable for research or teaching. Faculty members then maintained possession of other brain specimens in the collection that the university continues to own.”
Though others have their own ideas of what happened to the brains, this is certainly a feasible explanation.
“Anything contained in formaldehyde is considered a hazardous or mixed waste and would need to go to an incinerator. Those disposing of medical waste have to comply with state regulations and laws; it would be illegal otherwise,” explains Joe Delloiacovo, Executive Vice President of Medassure Services.
However, the mystery still remains relatively open. Not only did the university say it’d continue investigating, but Hannaford also expressed skepticism.
“I don’t buy it,” said Hannaford. “These jars were designed to hold one brain, and I find it hard to believe that if 40 jars were disposed of, that accounted for all the brains.”
Will the world ever find out what happened to the jars? Who knows? One larger question that remains unanswered, though, is just how exactly do 100 jars of floating brains even go missing in the first place?