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The Mystery Of The Missing Brains


For decades a collection of human remains sat in a basement at the University of Texas at Austin. KUT's Matt Largey tells us about the enduring mysteries that surround the collection.

MATT LARGEY, BYLINE: It all started with a photo shoot. Scientific American Magazine assigned photographer Adam Voorhees to take pictures of a human brain. The brain he photographed was provided by psychology professor Tim Schallert. The professor has a collection of brains.

ADAM VOORHEES: One wall is lined, floor to ceiling, two deep of these large jars filled with human brains.

LARGEY: Dozens of brains in glass jars.

VOORHEES: You know, we were kind of immediately struck by that they don't look like normal human brains. They look different.

LARGEY: They were odd shapes, strange colors.

TIM SCHALLERT: Well, we have Parkinson brains.

VOORHEES: Schallert was pointing out things to us like an Alzheimer's brain, a brain with dementia.

SCHALLERT: Person died in 1959. Down syndrome brains.

LARGEY: After he left that day, Voorhees kept thinking about all those brains. He went back and took hundreds of photographs of them. And he wanted to know more. So he called his friend, Alex Hannaford, a journalist living in Austin at the time, to help him do some research. And what Hannaford found was...

ALEX HANNAFORD: Basically, this brain collection was bequeathed to the University of Texas in 1986.

LARGEY: He says the collection came from the Austin State Hospital which used to be called - without concern for offending people - the Texas State Lunatic Asylum. The brains were collected by a staff doctor there named Coleman de Chenar.

HANNAFORD: There was 200 brains in this collection back in 1986. And basically, Austin Insane Asylum didn't have room for them anymore.

LARGEY: So they brought over these 200 brains, put them in a closet in Professor Tim Schallert's lab. Twenty-five years later, Voorhees shows up. But here's the thing - now there's only 100 brains.

VOORHEES: A hundred of the brains were just gone. And nobody really knows where or why they've just vanished.

LARGEY: That is mystery number one. Mystery number two - what bodies were attached to these brains? Hannaford asked the state hospital for the records, but no luck. The records had been lost or destroyed. So we may never know the identities behind these brains - except for one.

HANNAFORD: Among these brains is the brain of Charles Whitman, the UT shooter.

LARGEY: Whitman was the University of Texas Tower shooter who killed 16 people in 1966 before he was killed by police.

HANNAFORD: When Charles Whitman was shot, they found a note. And in that note he had asked that his brain be left to science and looked at by the pathologist to find out if there was something wrong with him. And the pathologist at the time was a guy called Coleman de Chenar.

LARGEY: The same Coleman de Chenar who put the collection together in the first place. De Chenar found a small tumor in Whitman's brain. His body was buried in Florida. His brain stayed behind - at least for a time. Whitman's brain disappeared from the collection - nobody knows when - and that is mystery number three. However, the collection might help solve a different set of mysteries - mysteries about the brain itself. Here's Professor Schallert again.

SCHALLERT: One of the interesting things that we can do with these brains is we can look for disorders that patients that didn't have any drugs, like they do now, we can compare them and maybe some major things that we'll find about what the drugs do.

LARGEY: Voorhees and Hannaford will publish a book of their photographs and research this week. The book is called "Malformed." They're hoping someone who knows something more about the brains might read the book and help fill in the blanks. In the meantime, the brains have been moved out of the professor's storage closet into a set of fresh, new jars. For NPR News, I'm Matt Largey in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Matt has been a reporter at KUT off and on since 2006. He came to Austin from Boston, then went back for a while--but couldn't stand to be away--so he came back to Austin. Matt grew up in Maine (but hates lobster), and while it might sound hard to believe, he thinks Maine and Texas are remarkably similar.