Cover image for Driving Mr. Albert : a trip across America with Einstein's brain
Driving Mr. Albert : a trip across America with Einstein's brain
Paterniti, Michael.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Dial Press, 2000.
Physical Description:
xi, 211 pages ; 22 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
RB17.H365 P38 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Albert Einstein's brain floats in formaldehyde in a Tupperware® bowl in a gray duffel bag in the trunk of a Buick Skylark barreling across America. Driving the car is Michael Paterniti, a young journalist from Maine. Sitting next to him is an eighty-four-year-old pathologist named Thomas Harvey who performed the autopsy on Einstein in 1955--and simply removed the brain and took it home. And kept it for over forty years. On a cold February day, the two men and the brain leave New Jersey and light out on I-70 for sunny California, where Einstein's perplexed granddaughter, Evelyn, awaits. And riding along as the imaginary fourth passenger is Einstein himself, an id-driven genius, the original galactic slacker with his head in the stars. Part travelogue, part memoir, part history, part biography, and part meditation,Driving Mr. Albertis one of the most unique road trips in modern literature. With the brain as both cargo and talisman, Paterniti perceives every motel, truck-stop diner, and roadside attraction as a weigh station for the American dream in the wake of the scientist's mind-blowing legacy. Finally, inspired by the man who gave a skeptical world a glimpse of its cosmic origins, this extraordinary writer weaves his own unified field theory of time, love, and the power to believe, once again, in eternity.

Author Notes

Michael Paterniti won the 1998 National Magazine Award for his article "Driving Mr. Albert," which was first published in "Harper's Magazine". A former Executive Editor of "Outside", his work has appeared in "Rolling Stone", "The New York Times Magazine", "Details", & "Esquire" where he is Writer-at-Large. He lives in Portland, Maine, with his wife & son.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Paterniti, an award-winning journalist, wondered for years if there was any truth to the story that Einstein's brain had been stolen by the pathologist who performed the autopsy. A casual conversation led him to Dr. Thomas Harvey, a "trippy dude" living next door to Williams S. Burroughs. Harvey promptly vanished, then reappeared in Princeton, New Jersey, the scene of the crime. Determined to hear a first-hand account, Paterniti ends up driving Harvey, and pieces of Einstein's brain, to California, and his chronicle of this macabre mission is galvanizing and unexpectedly poetic. Not only does he pilot his enigmatic companion cross-country while the famous brain floats in a Tupperware container, he orchestrates a profoundly revealing journey into our fetishistic feelings about death and the body, the philosophical heart of relativity, the Einstein mystique, and the mysteries of the brain. He also limns empathic portraits of Einstein and Harvey, a peculiar man who unwittingly turned himself into a living reliquary to one of the world's most celebrated and least understood geniuses. Paterniti's unique and haunting tale illuminates our dream of immortality and life's ever-confounding blend of the prosaic and the miraculous. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

Driving a Buick Skylark across the country with an addled octogenarian and an organ may not seem like the ripest material for a story, even if the organ is Albert Einstein's brain. In the hands of a stylish writer like Paterniti, however, the journey becomes a transcendent and hilarious exploration of heady themes like obsession, love and science. In 1955, the octogenarian, a pathologist named Thomas Harvey, removed Einstein's brain during an autopsy and, claiming he wished to study it further, took it home. In the years that followed, he sliced and shipped the brain around the world, but never relinquished most of the organ. Nor, to the criticism of colleagues, did he release his long-promised study. Forty-two years later, Harvey was finally ready to return the brain to Evelyn Einstein, Albert's granddaughter. He enlisted Paterniti, a freelance writer living in Maine, for the task. What ensues is a rare road story that gives equal weight to journey and destination. An expansion of an article published in Harper's magazine, this road-tale bears the classic elements of a spiritual questDthe brain a classic example of a character stand-in. But Paterniti so seamlessly weaves his stream-of-consciousness musings about everything from the theory of relativity to his own sputtering relationship with Harvey that the book becomes much more. Readers will hear echoes from American cultural historyDthe wanderlust of the Beats, the literary texture of Hemingway and the pastel-tinted surrealism of the Simpsons. It's impossible to put this book down. Paterniti has written a work at once entertaining, psychologically rich and emotionally sophisticatedDa feat as rare as, well, Einstein himself. Agent, Sloan Harris. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



On a cold winter day, during one of my early visits to Dr. Harvey, we drove around Princeton, making the obligatory pilgrimage to 112 Mercer Street, the house where Einstein spent the last twenty years of his life.  We sat for awhile with the car running, warm air pouring from the heater, gazing at a modest wood-frame colonial with black shutters on  a pleasant block of like houses.  More than anything, Einstein said he loved the old place for the light that filled the upstairs rooms and for the gardens out back.  He kept pictures of Michaelangelo and Schopenhauer hanging in his study, because, as he said, both men had escaped an everyday life of raw monotony and taken "refuge in a world crowded with images of our own creation." Sitting in the car, Thomas Harvey recalled hoew the Einstein family gathered here after the scientist's death, how his son, Hans Albert, and Einstein's longtime assistant, Helen Dukas, and Einstein's executor, Otto Nathan, as well as a small group of intimates, drove to a secret spot along the Delaware and scattered the ashes that remained of Albert Einstein's body,  And that was it. Not surprsingly, however, controversy immediately enshrouded the removal of Einstein's brain.  Word was leaked by Harvey's former teacher Dr. Zimmerman that Harvey had Einstein's brain, and that he, Zimmerman, was expecting to receive it from his student.  When this was reported in The New York Times a day after Einstein's death, Hans Albert, who knew nothing of his father's brain having been removed, was flabbergasted.  Otto Nathan expressed regret and shock, and later implied that Harvey was a bald-faced thief.  But, according to Harvey, Nathan, who died in 1984, stood by the door of the morgue, watching the entire autopsy.  (Nathan would later claim he didn't know what Harvey was up to.) Meanwhile, Harvey announced in a press conference that he was planning to conduct medical research on the brain. He says he spoke to Hans Albert over the phone, assuring him the brain would be studied for its scientific value, which would then be reported in a medical journal, thus allaying one of the deepest fears of the Einstein family: that the brain would becom a pop-cultural gewgaw.  "My one regret is that I didn't come to Mercer Street and talk to Hans Albert in person,"  Harvey told me that day.  "You know, clear things up before it got out of hand." But things were already out of hand.  Zimmerman, then on staff at New York's Montefiore Medical Center, prepared for the delivery of Einstein's brain, but it never arrived.  Increasingly flummoxed, then angry and embarrassed, Zimmerman found out that Princeton Hospital, under the direction of a man named John Kauffman, had decided not to relinquish it.  "Hospitals Tiff over Brain of Einstein," read one 1955 headline, and went on to describe how the brain remained at "the center of a jurisdictional dispute," with Princeton Hospital standing its ground, like an old-time gunfighter, claiming "the brain wouldn't be taken out of town." But then, a few years after the autopsy, Harvey was fired from his job for allegedly refusing to give up Einstein's brain to Kauffman.  In fact, Harvey had kept the brain himself, not at the hospital, but at home, and when he left Princeton he simply took it with him.  Years passed.  There were no studies or findings.  And, in turn, no legal action was brought against Harvey, as there was no precedence in the courts for the recovery of a brain under such circumstances.  And then Harvey fell off the radar screen.  When he gave an occasional interview--in local newspaper articles from 1956 and 1979 and 1988--he always repeated that he was about "a year from finishing study on the specimen." Four decades later, there's still no study.  And because somewhere in his watery blue eyes, his genial stumble-footing, and that ineffable cloak of hunched integrity that falls over the old, I find myself feeling for him and can't bring myself to ask the essential questions: Is he a grave-robbing thief or a renegade?  A sham or a shaman? Excerpted from Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain by Michael Paterniti All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.