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Brains in a jar







Image: human brains preserved in formaldehyde at the Texas State Mental Hospital by Adam Voorhes, from "Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital", 2014.

Several decades ago, the practice of pathology was very different than it is now. Autopsy rates of hospital patients were much, much higher and idea of obtaining patient consent for the preservation and storage of human body parts for teaching was, essentially, unknown. The most prized specimens were those that demonstrated pathologies - especially one that were extreme or rare. Due to the nature of its patient population, the collection of human brains at the Texas State Mental Hospital was both. Dating back to the 1950s, the collection was full of unusual neuropathological conditions, wondrous to behold.
But in 1985, the Hospital realized that it was in violation of federal standards regarding preservation - the collection needed to be transferred elsewhere. Several major institutions - including Harvard and Yale - battled it out to become the collection's new home. The brains ended up at the University of Texas at Austin, but due to a lack of funding the collection was set aside, stuffed in a closet deep in bowels of the hospital, and forgotten, unviewed and unused. Due to lack of maintenance, 100 brains (roughly half the collection) had to be destroyed around 2002 and records listing medical history and diagnoses for each specimen were lost.

In 2011, photographer Adam Voorhes happened to get a look at the collection and decided to photograph it, leading to the publication of "Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital" in 2014. His work prompted the university to again use the collection for education - undergraduates will study the brains and they'll be passed through a high-resolution MRI in an attempt to correlate specimens with specific pathologies. They might even be put on public display, proving that everything old is new again - even brains in a jar.

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