This column was written by Brian Crandall, who runs “Ithacating in Cornell Heights.”
Why I shop downtown — Carmen
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I feel that for all the attention the Wilder Brain Collection gets in Cornell promotional material, the display itself is relatively tucked away in the bowels of Cornell’s Central Campus.
The brains are featured in the “welcome” display of the Department of Psychology, on the second floor of Uris Hall (third if entering from the auditorium side).
The display itself is pretty modest – eight brains, with page-long biographies of each of the individuals featured, seven male and one female.
Perhaps thankfully, none of the brains featured belong to children or young adults, sparing anyone from a fun, happenstance conversation about youth mortality. The collection actually numbers about 70 specimens currently, most of which are stored in a basement closet in Uris Hall (unfortunately, Cornell is not accepting donations from the newly departed).
The brain collection used to be much larger, however.
It was started by Cornell professor Burt Green Wilder in 1889. Prof. Wilder established the “Cornell Brain Society” with the goal of determining if differences in the size, shape, weight and appearance of the brains could be established between the grey matter obtained from “educated and orderly persons” versus women, murderers, the mentally ill and racial minorities. (I’ll give female readers a moment to roll their eyes.) The eventual conclusion was that there were no detectable differences, at least none apparent to 19th century methods or the naked eye.
This might seem obvious now, but in the 19th century, this was still a largely unexplored realm. For instance, phrenology, a psuedoscience where skull measurements were used to determine ones traits and behaviors, was still accepted in some quarters in the late 1800s.
Over time, the number of full and partial specimens collected by Wilder and his successors numbered over 600.
Unfortunately, as the years wore on, the brains fell into obscurity, and were not well maintained. By the time Prof. Barbara Finlay assumed the curator role in 1978, many of the brains had “dried up” or were “carried out of the basement via buckets“. This led to the purging of most of the specimens, and the eight selected for display were chosen if only because the psychology department was able to find enough information to write brief biographies on each of the donors.
Briefly, the eight donors are:
Burt Green Wilder (1841-1925) – The founder of the collection, Wilder was a surgeon for the Union Army during the Civil War, and a professor of neurology and vertebrate zoology at Cornell from 1867-1910.
Helen Hamilton Gardener (1853-1925) – An author and prominent suffragette, Gardener donated her brain to the collection to prove that a woman’s brain was in no way inferior to a man’s.
Edward Titchener (1867-1927) – A prominent psychologist and Cornell professor, Titchener coined the word “empathy” in a 1909 publication.
Henry A. Ward (1834-1906) – A naturalist who pioneered the business of collecting specimens (specifically rocks and minerals) and selling them to colleges and museums. He was also Buffalo’s first automobile fatality.
Jeremiah Jenks (1856-1929) – An economist and Cornell professor from 1891-1912.
Sutherland Simpson (1863-1926) – A Cornell physiology professor (1908-1926). Simpson had intended in his younger years to become a ship captain, but depending on the source, either a hand injury or a letter from his mother caused him to rethink his plans, and instead he applied for the position of laboratory boy in the physiology department of the Univ. of Edinburgh, which started a long and fulfilling academic career.
Simon Henry Gage (1851-1944) – the most recent of the displayed brains, Gage was associated with Cornell from his 1873 enrollment to his death 71 years later. He was an anatomy and physiology professor and co-designed Stimson Hall on Cornell’s campus.
There are a lot of brains on Cornell’s campuses, though perhaps they’re a little busier than these.