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Brain Collection At the University of Texas At Austin

J. Riley Holmes General

For more than twenty years, approximately 100 human brains lined the back closet of a lab in the Animal Resources Center at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin. The specimens were fully intact and well-preserved, with the earliest in the collection dating back specifically to 1952 and the latest specimen as recent as 1983. While these qualities made this brain collection unique, the medical conditions affixed on their labels further distinguished them from other collections in the United States. Before their transfer to UT Austin, each specimen formerly belonged to a patient at the Austin State Hospital (ASH), originally established as the State Lunatic Asylum. The brains represent an array of mental disorders, from cerebral atrophy to Down syndrome.

Coleman de Chenar, resident pathologist at the hospital, began collecting the brains as he performed autopsies on his patients. He kept the specimens in glass jars filled with gauze and formaldehyde, occasionally with other organs as well. He labeled each jar with the patient’s condition, the date of collection, and a unique case number. In 2011 Austin photographer Adam Voorhes, who came to UT to photograph a human brain for Scientific American magazine, was shown the brains by Tim Schallert, a psychology professor and principal investigator of a neurobiology lab at UT Austin, who maintained the collection at the time. Voorhes began to photograph the brain specimens as a collection.
In 2014 the brains received national attention after Voorhes published his work, along with essays written by British journalist Alex Hannaford, in Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital. As they researched the origin of the collection, they noticed the case numbers did not appear to correspond with existing medical records at the Texas Department of State Health Services. The records, which provided important case histories and medical details regarding the patients’ conditions, had disappeared. Although the ASH supposedly retained the files, their current location is unclear. Dean Falk, an evolutionary anthropologist at Florida State University, hypothesized the case numbers were instead De Chenar’s own unique system of cataloguing the various specimens. How De Chenar selected for his collection remains unclear, as well as whether patients consented to the practice and whether or not it was legal.

Whether every patient at the ASH received an autopsy is also unknown. Before mental health reforms, death rates at the hospital steadily increased over time. The building’s decaying condition and outdated practices contributed to these numbers. Prior to its reorganization during the 1970s, overcrowding, electric shock therapy, and poor airflow characterized life at the hospital. As medicines and community support improved after reform legislations, patients experienced better treatment and shorter stays at the hospital. The brains in De Chenar’s collection represent patients who experienced life at the ASH before and after its reorganization. Before his death in 1985, De Chenar’s collection contained around 200 specimens dating from 1952 to 1983.

In 1966 Coleman de Chenar gained national attention for his evaluation of the brain belonging to the UT Tower shooter, Charles Whitman (see also UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS TOWER SHOOTING [1966]), whose murderous shooting spree on August 1, 1966, much of which occurred from the observation deck of the UT Tower, ultimately resulted in the death of seventeen people and wounding of thirty-one others. Before the shooting, Whitman sought help for mental illness several times and cited severe headaches and feelings of hostility. Reportedly, in a suicide note, Whitman requested the study of his brain upon his death to locate the cause of his mental illness. De Chenar performed his autopsy and located a five-centimeter tumor in the center of Whitman’s brain. Although the tumor pressed on his amygdala, the structure responsible for emotional processing, it was not confirmed as cause for his violent actions. Rather, De Chenar confirmed a correlation between the tumor and Whitman’s inability to control his emotions and actions. Whitman’s brain was returned to the hospital and supposedly kept in De Chenar’s growing collection.

Due to limited space, the Austin State Hospital began searching for an alternate location for the collection in 1986. Proper disposal protocol for formaldehyde—the chemical preserving the brains—did not exist during this time. UT Austin received the specimens after several universities, including Harvard Medical School, requested ownership of the collection. The collection, however, was too big for the allocated space in UT’s Animal Resources Center. Although half the collection, along with Whitman’s brain, was supposedly sent back to the ASH, the hospital denied receiving the collection.

After Adam Voorhes published his photographs and Coleman de Chenar’s collection gained popularity, the location of the remaining specimens was questioned. UT Austin released a statement apologizing for the missing brains, and in December 2014 they revealed the missing specimens were destroyed in 2002 as part of a routine disposal of biological waste. Additionally, they claimed there was no evidence that one of the missing brains formerly belonged to Charles Whitman, though they promised to continue investigating this claim.

Several other brain collections exist in the United States, but the UT collection houses several intact, rare specimens. McLean Hospital houses the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, where patients may donate their brains for research. This “brain bank” contains several thousand brains, with a few representing mental disorders such as schizophrenia, autism, and Parkinson’s disease. Researchers examine small amounts of tissue for microscopic changes undetectable by scans. The Cushing Center Collection at Yale University is kept on public display, along with photographs and patient histories. These patients voluntarily donated their brains for Harvey Cushing, the neurosurgeon responsible for the collection, to study. In 2016 samples were extracted from these specimens for genetic research.

Because the brains Coleman de Chenar collected remain fully intact, researchers can perform intense MRI scans to visualize these specimens and their conditions. Lack of funding and access to proper technology, however, inhibited research on the collection until UT Austin obtained the proper high-resolution MRI scanner in 2012. Although the medical history of these patients remains missing, their brains are primarily used for educational purposes at the university. In 2013 a Freshman Research Initiative began to allow undergraduates to engage in a brain-pathology sequence with the goal to scan each specimen in its entirety. Upon completion, these scans would be used to form a database for other institutions studying these disorders, an invaluable resource for studying rare conditions. In 2014 the remaining brains were moved to the Norman Hackerman Building at UT for scanning. As of 2020 there was no information regarding the progress of this study. The brains were intended for display after the scans were completed, though the collection still remained closed to the public.

Daily Texan, October 8, 2013. Dean Falk, “Forgotten bodies too?” Brain: A Journal of Neurology 138 (April 2015). Rick Jervis and Doug Stanglin, “Mystery of missing University of Texas brains solved,” USA Today, December 3, 2014 (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/12/03/texas-missing-brains/19819601/), accessed September 10, 2019. Rebecca Johnston, “A Fitting Memorial: The Mental Health Legacy of the Whitman Murders,” BEHIND THE TOWER: New Histories of the UT Tower Shooting, Public History Seminar at UT Austin, initially published summer 2016 (http://behindthetower.org/a-fitting-memorial), accessed September 24, 2019. Matt Largey, “The Mystery Brains of the Texas State Lunatic Asylum (Update),” KUT 90.5 (https://www.kut.org/post/mystery-brains-texas-state-lunatic-asylum-update), accessed September 10, 2019. Matt Largey, “The Mystery of The Missing Brains,” NPR: Texas Public Radio (https://www.npr.org/2014/11/29/367362443/the-mystery-of-the-missing-brains), accessed October 2, 2019. Adam Voorhes and Alex Hannaford, Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital (Brooklyn: powerHouse Books, 2014).

Categories:

  • Health and Medicine

Time Periods:

  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century

Places:

  • Austin

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

J. Riley Holmes, “Brain Collection At the University of Texas At Austin,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed September 28, 2020, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/brain-collection-at-the-university-of-texas-at-austin.

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