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Friday, October 2, 2015

Russian Soldiers Ate My Great-Grandfather’s Brains

russian WW2 soldiers

As a continuation of the recent series of posts on violence, family, brains, and eating,See Genius and Insanity, A Genuine Mystery, A Partial Explanation for a Genuine Mystery, and Human Sacrifice at the University. about a hundred years ago, the author’s great-grandfather—let’s call him S—was one the leading scientists in the fields of neurology and neuropathology.To judge from the accounts of family members and friends who knew him, S’s own brain was probably abnormal. At a scientific social event, he is reported to have turned to his wife and asked her why this colleague had suddenly walked away from them with such a ferocious mien on his face. His wife responded that this was probably because S had just called him an idiot to his face. To which S gravely nodded, yes, but it is true. This was apparently was typical of S and today he would probably be diagnosed with some high-functioning form of autism spectrum disorder.

Lacking modern tools, like fMRI, S’s method included examining people who had suffered gross brain injury, either due to disease or trauma, making careful notes on how their mental function was impaired, waiting a few days or decades, and then, after the subject had died, performing an autopsy on their brains. By matching the obviously damaged parts of the brain with the impairment, he was in many cases able to identify what types of mental function occured in what regions of the brain.It is highly likely that the gentle reader, at this very moment, is using a region of the brain that was either first identified or named by S.

One of S’s colleagues and friends was Dr. Oskar Vogt of the Institut für Hirnforschung in Berlin. Vogt laboring on the same great task—discovering how the brain actually produces mental function—hypothesised that the brains of the most unusual people were most likely to show brain differences which could be identified under the microscope and that they therefore were the best starting point.Ultimately, this approach was not terribly successful, but it was a perfectly intelligent approach to try, given what was then known and what instruments were available. So Vogt collected the brains of geniuses and psychopaths.

Among the brains donated to Vogt for this research was Lenin’s.In another interconnection between these anecdotes, it had been S who had headed the committee of doctors (among whose members was also S’s son and the author’s grandfather) to diagnose Lenin as he was dying of a brain disease. The official story is that it was a series of strokes that killed Lenin. S had however always insisted that it was syphilis, a theory which has gained some recent scientifc support. There are more such interconnections between these events and the history of science and politics, but to recount them all would make penetrating the author’s pseudonym even easier than it already is. When Vogt after extensive examination was heard to remark that Lenin’s brain really showed more of the characteristics typical of psychopaths than geniuses, Soviet authorities angrily demanded its return.This episode is recounted in Lenin's Brain and Other Tales from the Secret Soviet Archives. Given what ensued, this was fortunate for Lenin’s brain.

Another brain donated to Vogt was S’s after he died of natural causes at an advanced age in the 1930s. It is not known whether Vogt put it in his psychopath or genius collection, but—given that they were friends—one would like to think that it was not the former.

Readers familiar with history may recall that 1945 was not a good year to be in Berlin. Even for a brain in a jar, it was hazardous, if it was a brain in a jar preserved in alcohol. When Russian soldiers had taken Berlin and started the customary looting, they discovered a large collection of such, among them S’s, in the basement of the Institut für Hirnforschung. Evidently having grown thirsty on the long march, they consumed the alcohol. When that ran out, someone must have noticed that there still was plenty of the good stuff soaked in the brains. So they ate them too. When the terrified staff of the institute dared to investigate a few days later, they found a substantial number of inebriated Russian soldiers, emptied brain jars, and—perhaps—some nice slices of brain being cooked. It is through their reports to the author’s family that the story reached him.