a faculty member holds one of the brains in a jar in the collection

Brains! Collection Is a (Slightly Spooky) Artifact of an Earlier Era

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Now overseen by the psychology department, the vintage cerebra draw many a visitor to the second floor of Uris Hall

By Joe Wilensky

Don’t mind them; the eight brains on display in fluid-filled glass jars in Uris Hall have long since stopped being of use to their owners. These preserved organs are part of one of the University’s most famous—if, admittedly, a bit creepy—holdings: the Wilder Brain Collection.

The compilation of cerebra dates back to 1889 and its namesake, Burt Green Wilder, a former Civil War surgeon who was one of Cornell’s original faculty members.

A professor (of anatomy, physiology, comparative neurology, and vertebrate zoology) on the Hill for more than four decades, he studied the workings of the brain and nervous system.

Amassed brainpower: the collection in the late 19th century
The collection in the late 19th century. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

The collection Wilder amassed—his brainchild, you might say—included not only human and animal brains but other organs and body parts; at its peak, it comprised between 600 and 1,200 specimens.

Photos from the late 1800s show row upon row of bell jars on wooden shelves, under labels such as “Educated Orderly Persons,” “Unknown, Uneducated, Insane, or Criminals,” and “Bright School-boy.”

In Wilder’s time, the anatomical study of the human brain focused on meticulously weighing the organ and recording its fissures and folds—with the belief that education, intellect, and talent could be physically measured within the complex structure.

Collection curator Tim DeVoogd keeps one of the brains in his office
Curator Tim DeVoogd keeps one of the brains in his office. (Noël Heaney / Cornell University)

And while this now-antiquated approach was grounded in patriarchal assumptions about race and gender—such as the long-held belief that the smaller average size of female brains proved women’s naturally inferior intellect—Wilder’s studies actually helped establish that there were no meaningful structural differences among the brains people of different genders, races, or education levels.

“His observations contributed to working out that the right way to look at brain size is with respect to body size,” notes psychology professor Tim DeVoogd, a neurobiologist and the collection’s current curator. “Whales and elephants have large brains; when you look at the ratio, women on average have slightly larger brains than men with respect to body size.”

Because most of the brains available to researchers were those of criminals or people who died in asylums, Wilder often asked colleagues, students, prominent citizens—and even audience members at his scholarly lectures—to sign forms promising to bequeath their brains to his collection.

As the form helpfully noted: “A brain is most safely transmitted in a tin pail of saturated brine, the lid secured with surgeon’s adhesive plaster.”

The paperwork also sought to—um—head off the resistance of surviving family members.

“If my near relatives, by blood or by marriage, object seriously to the fulfilment of this bequest, it shall be void; but I earnestly hope that they may interpose neither objection nor obstacle,” it stated.

Read before signing: The bequest from Wilder used to solicit donations
The bequest form Wilder used to solicit donations. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

“I ask them to notify the proper person promptly of my death; if possible, even, of its near approach.”

Several brains of note ran (sorry, we can’t resist) head-on into this obstacle.

They include those of Cornell professor and building namesake Goldwin Smith and suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who signed Wilder’s form but whose survivors objected, nullifying the donation.

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After Wilder passed away in 1925—naturally, his own brain joined the collection—donations continued for a couple of decades.

A brain is most safely transmitted in a tin pail of saturated brine, the lid secured with surgeon’s adhesive plaster.

"Form of Bequest of Brain"

But solicitations eventually stopped as brain study evolved; the hundreds of jars became a historical curiosity, relegated to a sub-basement in Stimson Hall. Many were lost to dissection or neglect.

By the early 1970s, though, Wilder’s opus gained renewed attention. Specimens in poor condition were removed, and a slimmed-down selection of the brains—now overseen by the psychology department—was put on display.

The collection was even featured in a 1972 New York Times story by Jane Brody ’62, who'd go on to become a renowned health columnist.

The psychology department showcases eight brains, along with biographies of their former owners, on the second floor of Uris Hall
Eight brains, along with biographies of their former owners, are showcased in Uris Hall. (Cornell University)

(As Brody wrote, after noting that the collection's founder had also been an accomplished pianist and composer: "Analysis of Professor Wilder's brain revealed a 'large and well-formed' organ with 'a mild grade of senile atrophy' ... and, in accordance with his musical talents, a temporal lobe of 'large relative dimensions.'")

In 2006, a redesigned showcase for the collection’s eight headliners debuted on the second floor of Uris Hall.

It features (among others) the brains of several Cornell professors, a suffragist, and Wilder himself.

Perhaps its most famous "resident"? Edward Rulloff, Ithaca's infamous 19th-century “genius killer,” whose brain was long believed to be one of the largest ever recorded.

Cornell professor James Papez with the collection in 1950
Prof. James Papez, the collection’s second curator, in 1950. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

The collection includes another 20 brains kept in a Uris storage room, along with a few skulls as décor—as well as the last preserved piece of the famed McGraw Tower pumpkin.

The brains need minimal upkeep, DeVoogd says, including replacing the alcohol solution and resealing the jars about once a year.

He keeps one other brain from the collection in his office: that of Hungarian-born pacifist, feminist, and suffragist Rosika Schwimmer—who reportedly marched into President Woodrow Wilson’s office in the early days of World War I, asking him to intervene in Europe and organize a peace conference.

“Apparently,” DeVoogd notes, “he was polite, and had her shown out.”

Even in the collection’s somewhat out-of-the-way location in Uris, the display remains a popular stop for visiting families and for first-year students exploring campus.

“Once a month,” DeVoogd says, “I see a group that’s particularly fascinated out there, and I’ll bring them back and show them Mrs. Schwimmer’s brain.”

Top: Some of the collection’s specimens in a Uris Hall storage area. (Cornell University)

Published October 26, 2023

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