Page 5 of 5   <      

Rest in Pieces

Battle of the Brains

Ancient Egyptian mummies are stacked on shelves. Amazonian shrunken heads are filed in a cabinet. And on a table in the "Mummy Room" in the basement of the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History is a jar containing a human brain floating in alcohol.

"This is the brain of John Wesley Powell," says David Hunt, the collections manager of the museum's Physical Anthropology Division.

Powell became a national hero in 1869, when he led the first boat trip through the Grand Canyon. He also explored and mapped much of the West.

These days, Powell's brain is as gray as oatmeal and as cracked as a dry lake bed in a bad drought. The Smithsonian possesses it because of a bet Powell made with his friend W.J. McGee, president of the National Geographic Society.

"They had a running joke about who had a bigger brain," says Hunt. "And they both signed an agreement that after their death, the bet would be posthumously decided."

This was in the 1890s, when scientists loved to study the brains of great men, hoping to discover the secrets of their brilliance. When Walt Whitman died in 1892, his brain was sent to the American Anthropometric Society for study. Alas, the study was foiled when a lab technician dropped the good gray poet's brain on the floor. Splat!

When Powell died in 1902, his brain was shipped to anthropologist Edward Spitzka, who enjoyed weighing and comparing the brains of prominent men. (Whitman's was 1,282 grams; Turgenev's a hefty 2,012.) Powell's brain weighed in at 1,488 grams. In a 1903 article in the American Anthropologist magazine, Spitzka described the cracks and crevices of Powell's brain at great length -- 57 pages -- before reaching this momentous conclusion:

"Major Powell, geologist, ethnologist, explorer, philosopher and soldier, was endowed with a superior brain, and, what is more, he used it well."

In 1912, McGee died at the Cosmos Club in Washington. His brain was extracted from his cranium and weighed -- 1,410 grams. Powell had won the bet, although he wasn't around to brag about it.

Spitzka donated Powell's brain to the Smithsonian in 1921. These days, it spends most of its time in an alcohol-filled stainless steel box in a storage facility in Suitland.

And now, as Paul Harvey would say, here's the rest of the story:

In the 1990s, Hunt got a call from Troy L. Pewe, a geology professor at Arizona State University and a Powell devotee who enjoyed taking students on boat trips through the Grand Canyon.

"Dr. Pewe asked whether it would be possible to make a donation of his brain with the stipulation that it would be kept near Powell's brain," Hunt recalls. "I said that would certainly be something we could do."

Pewe died in 1999. His brain was put on dry ice and shipped to the Smithsonian, where it was laid to rest next to Powell's brain. Occasionally, his family inquires about it.

"They call and say hello and ask if everything's okay," says Hunt. "And of course it is."

The Dillinger Legend

John Dillinger, the legendary bank robber and escape artist, took two girlfriends to the movies on July 22, 1934, watching Clark Gable play a gangster who ends up in the electric chair in "Manhattan Melodrama."

When Dillinger walked out of the Biograph Theatre in Chicago, a team of FBI agents shot him dead. After his body was hauled away, souvenir-seekers dipped handkerchiefs in his blood.

The death of "Public Enemy No. 1" made headlines across the world. Since then, his story has been told in countless books and movies and his legend gave rise to a bizarre rumor -- that the G-men amputated Dillinger's allegedly enormous penis, which is now stored in a Washington museum. In 1991, the legend was cited in the TV show "The Wonder Years." In 2003, it was repeated in the movie "The Recruit." Historian Douglas Brinkley recounted the rumor in his 1993 book "The Majic Bus," suggesting it as a "potential thesis topic for some hapless graduate student."

"It's one of those urban legends that's been around for a long time," says John Fox, the FBI's official historian. "But there's no evidence that the corpse was mutilated in any way -- except for the bullets he was shot with."

At the Museum of Health and Medicine, questions about Dillinger's most famous appendage are asked so frequently that Solomon, the museum's spokesman, addressed the issue in the "Frequently Asked Questions" section of the museum's Web site:

"Do you have 20th century gangster John Dillinger's penis in the collection?

"No . . . We don't have it but we get a lot of phone calls asking if we do."

The Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History has no such disclaimer on its Web site.

"We do have something pertaining to Dillinger," says Daniel Rogers, chairman of the museum's anthropology department. "It's not a body part. It's made out of rubber or latex. I guess you could describe it as a medical model."

Rogers is sitting in his office with anthropologist Laurie Burgess and museum spokesman Randall Kremer. Nobody knows where the Dillinger item came from, Rogers says, and it has never been officially entered into the collection. For years it was stored in a jar labeled "J. Dillinger." When that jar broke, it was placed in another jar.

"It's been around here longer than I have," Rogers says. "and I've been here for 17 years."

"Why don't we go take a look at it?" says Kremer.

Burgess leads the men through a maze of third-floor hallways lined from floor to ceiling with wooden boxes that hold various specimens. She stops outside Room 300, takes out a key and unlocks a pale green wooden locker. Inside are two jars. One is empty except for a layer of dust. There's a small hole just below a label with words typed on it:

"J. Dillinger

FBI Transfer

SI Mammals Div."

And below that, handwritten: "To Anthropology 1-27-53."

The other jar is larger. It's filled with water and contains a long, narrow pale white object about 16 inches long.

Burgess reports that she inspected the object a few days ago. "It's a synthetic polymer," she says.

In other words, it's a piece of plastic. Nobody knows where it came from or when it arrived. It's not listed in any records at the Smithsonian or the FBI. The folks at both institutions figure it's probably a joke inspired by the famous rumor.

Which raises the question: Why does the Smithsonian keep it?

Rogers smiles when he answers, and his reply explains a lot about why Washington's greatest museums keep stuff like Ike's gallstones and Booth's backbone and Pershing's dentures and Ham's skeleton and Grant's tumor and Powell's brain and Guiteau's spleen.

"Museums," Rogers says, "have a tendency not to throw things away."

<                5

© 2006 The Washington Post Company