The Malformed, Forgotten Brain Collection of a Former 'Lunatic Asylum'

A new book offers a look into the fascinating specimens stored at the University of Texas, many of which have gone mysteriously missing over the years.

Dec 8 2014, 4:55pm

​Study No. 9: 3759-04-83 Down's Syndrome, 02/10/83 All images courtesy of Adam Voorhes and powerHouse Books

There's a unique collection of incredibly rare medical curiosities housed in the University of Texas at Austin: 100 deformed human brains resting in clear, glass jars of formaldehyde, their conditions catalogued on yellowing labels. They once belonged to patients at the Texas State Lunatic Asylum, known today by its far less dramatic name, the Austin State Hospital.

The original collection contained more than 200 brains, but last week there were reports that half of these  mysteriously disappe​ared. While some headlines made it sound like 100 brains disappeared overnight, they actually went missing more than a decade ago. In light of all the new attention, though, the university released a statement last Wednesday to say that back in 2002, UT officials threw out 40 to 60 specimens "in accordance with protocols concerning biological waste." 

The fates of the other organs that were not thrown out (but also aren't in the collection) are still unknown. That seems like a lot of brains to go missing, and apparently the university thinks so too: Investigations are currently underway to learn what happened to the lost specimens.

The remaining 100 zombie snacks, however, reveal a wealth of information about neurological disorders and are the fascinating subjects of a new book by Austin-based photographer Adam V​oorhes and journalist Alex Hann​aford. Titled Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital​the hardcover is filled with detailed photographs of the brains and an essay exploring the history of the curious collection, which was largely neglected for years by both the medical community and the media. The images are the result of a weekend Voorhes and his wife spent at the University after learning about the brains in 2011. Wearing gloves and respirators to withstand the intense stench of formaldehyde, they captured each specimen with a large-format camera, revealing the beauty in the brains' distorted folds and abnormal sizes.

It's not every day that you come across a closet full of old, pickled brains, so I called Adam to learn more about the book and photos, the rare anatomical anomalies within the collection, and how the specimens may contribute to scientific research today.

​Brain jar spread

VICE: It's odd that a bunch of malformed brains were quietly lying around for decades in a closet. How did you discover the collection?
Adam Vorhees: I was on assignment for Scientific American, and my wife and I were to photograph a normal human brain that had been donated. So we went to University of Texas and were talking to Tim Schallert, who owns the lab, and he says, "Hey, do you guys want to check out the brain collection?" So we go into a teaching lab, and there's a storage closet filled with cabinets that contained these jars stacked two-deep on the shelves, floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall, with human brains. It's the kind of thing you see in the movies.

He also pointed out that a lot of the brains are in decay. Some of the jars are cracked, the chemistry was old and clouded and needed to be replaced, and they didn't have the funds. So we decided to help pay for the chemistry if he were to give us access to the lab for a couple of days to visually preserve this collection.

Study No. 255 440-07-1975 Hydrocephalus internus et externus, 02/27/75 A buildup of fluid inside the skull and brain.

What compelled you to undertake the project? Do you have an interest in medical curiosities?
No, it was very much the mystery of it. It was a feeling of responsibility where I felt I could do something positive. The secondary thing is the sociology aspect, wanting to understand what these people's experiences were like. There were brains of people who had Down's syndrome. I was really confused by that. I grew up in the 80s, and my perception of it wouldn't be that a person [with Down's] would be in a mental hospital. Another thing is that decades ago, if somebody had a low IQ, they would be put into a school that is essentially a state-run ward, and it would kind of be a life sentence to a mental institution. So you had these people who had Down's syndrome who ended up in this collection for that reason. There's another brain with meningitis—it's an inflammation of the brain. It's not a mental illness. Why were they there? I wanted to know.

So how did 100 ancient brains end up apart from their owners, banished to jars for eternity?
The collection was amassed from the 1950s to the early 80s. Back then, if a person was in a state hospital, and they had a really low IQ, a degree of mental retardation, or some kind of brain disorder—and they passed away while they were in state care—there had to be a brain autopsy. So these were all patients at the Austin State Hospital, which was originally established in the late 1800s.


Study No. 282 UNLABELED. Three dyed segments of brain used for teaching

Was there a reason why they were preserved in formaldehyde instead of getting tossed out after being studied?
I honestly have no idea. I think a lot of it has to do with disposal issues, but that's a really interesting question because the bodies were definitely taken care of. It is a relevant question, but what I've really been focusing on are questions like: What is so special about this collection? How is it scientifically relevant? What use is there to it?

So there weren't any documents accompanying the collection that offered any clues about it?
One of the things we wanted to do was uncover these medical records at the state hospital. They told us we had access to these records whenever we want. Well, somebody at this hospital had thrown them out. So all of this medical data that went with the collection was thrown away. Just gone. So that's why we don't know as much as I'd like to know about a lot of the brains.

What kind of place was the Texas State Mental Hospital? Some of the jars look like they just contain chunks of brains. Did doctors carry out procedures like lobotomies and psychosurgery?
In the late 1800s, it was incredibly progressive. It was all about rest for patients, giving them fresh air, room to exercise and breathe. It was a very forward-thinking place. And as you go forward in history, then you get into electroshock therapy, you get into heavily medicating patients, so that kind of stuff did happen. So these ups and downs in history. As far as lobotomies, I don't know whether that was or wasn't done.

In some of [the jars] where you see chunks, that would be where there was a brain hemorrhage or a tumor, and they would do a dissection of the brain. What was really strange is there were some jars that had bits of organ in them. Those [patients] typically had cysts in the brain. And when you have a disorder when cysts are growing in the brain, it typically grows on other organs. So the doctor was looking for cysts in organs in addition to the brain.

​ Study No. 230: 752-141-1959 Mikrenkephalia, 10/16/59. This heart and brain, preserved together, had the consistency of jelly.

​What are some other deformities or diseases you observed?
You have incredibly rare brains. Somebody had a severe brain tumor, and they would have headaches, behavioral changes. You have brains with giant brain tumors that wouldn't happen now due to medical advancement. You have some rare disorders where the brain is completely smooth. That person probably wouldn't be able to talk. He would have seizures. Most of the brains have a buildup of cerebral fluid, which is another thing that wouldn't really happen today. The doctors now would put a little device at the base of the skull that would drain excess fluid. Here we see fluid building up in the inside or the outside of the brain, which would cause the brain to be incredibly large. It can cause the brain to be small. It can cause the brain to grow in a shape that isn't normal, and those were the ones that were wild. And then Alzheimer's—you have an incredible amount of decay in the brain tissue. And elderly brains, where the wrinkles are kind of shrunken and pulled apart more.

So what can we learn today about mental health from the brains?
It's pretty exciting. The brains in this collection wouldn't exist today because of the technologies and medication we have, so they can be used as a teaching tool. The response from the scientific community has been fantastic. A lot of pathologists have reached out, and they are very excited about the project. You have brains where people were medicated when they wouldn't be medicated today, and people can do comparisons of the tissue. You could compare people suffering from schizophrenia who didn't have any medications with people who do now. There's so much to it that's really valuable.

What's in the future for the brains? Will they be put on display?
After we started this project, UT got a rejuvenation of interest in this collection. They've decided to do MRI scans, and that would be a way to study the entire mass of the brain and could be something people could use anywhere to do a study. UT is building a new medical teaching facility, and they have plans to put them in a sort of museum there. They have a room at Harvard Medical where they have brains on display in a very tasteful manner. I think it would be exciting if UT had something along those lines.

​ Study No. 331: ILLEGIBLE. Severe developmental anomaly of the brain, 01/06/78 

​Brain shelf spread.

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