Sheldon Lee Gosline
Much speculation has been written about what really happened to Walt Whitman’s (1819-1892) brain, and the degree of responsibility for its destruction has been variously assigned. Probably the most comprehensive study is by Brian Burrell in “The Strange Fate of Whitman’s Brain.” Cynthia Haven speculated that the narrative of how Whitman’s brain was destroyed even inspired a vivid scene the 1931 film Frankenstein.
Walt Whitman (Image courtesy of Dr. Geoffrey Sill, Rutgers University.)
The narrative of how a clumsy lab assistant dropped the bottle containing Whitman’s brain, after which it was discarded, is still told at the Walt Whitman House in Camden, NJ. This was historical fiction to protect the reputation of the guilty party. The head of the lab, Dr Henry Ware Cattell (1862-1936), perhaps best known for his Post-Mortem Pathology, has received his share of accusations, but until now there has been no proof. Whitman’s brain was supposed to join those of other prominent Americans at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wistar Institute, famous for its collection of nineteenth-century elite brains donated in pre-mortem agreements by members of The American Antropometric Society, informally called the “Brain Club,” established in 1889.  A believer in phrenology, Whitman made regular references to it in his writings,  so it is no surprise that he was interested in having his brain studied after his death.
Cattell’s diary, covering parts of 1891-1893, sheds some light on what actually happened. This is an unpublished handwritten ledger with a cover page entitled “Diseases of Children”. The bulk of the text consists of his diary for 1892 – the fateful year when the poet Walt Whitman died, had an autopsy performed by Cattell, removing his brain for scientific research. The ledger was sold on Ebay in December 2012, and I am very thankful to Jason Cacioppo, its current owner, for sharing the unpublished data with me.
Unfortunately, Cattell’s diary is silent about the Whitman autopsy, with no entry for the day in question, 27 March 1892. It is, however, revelatory about how the poet’s brain was destroyed. There are sporadic diary entries for 1891 (2 March to 14 September 1891, pp 50-60), then a gap during the time of the Whitman autopsy. Dated entries resume with daily entries beginning 23 May 1892 (p 61). At first optimistic, the diary entries are sporadic. Many day-pages have little or no data. Having recently received the post of anatomical demonstrator for the University of Pennsylvania, 1892 started out as a great year for Cattell. He notes seeing his first professional baseball game on 20 July 1892 (p 96), that he got new glasses, even recording his lens correction, on 30 September 1892 (p 130), and the passing of his 30th birthday on 7 October (p 137).
But after 14 October 1892 diary entries are increasingly dark and self deprecating, expressing financial concerns, doubts, and even confessions of suicidal thoughts. The pivotal moment concerns an unexplained confession on 14 October 1892, “I am a fool.”(p 144) This begs the obvious question, why does Cattell call himself a fool? The prior day his notes include “Prepare specimens for path. soc.”(p 143) Hypothetically, among those specimens was the brain of Walt Whitman, as yet undamaged. Is a nearly blank page with a teasing confession the closest we will ever come to learning what actually happened? By itself, “I am a fool” could relate to anything, and even if it does concern Whitman’s brain it does not by itself tell us why Cattell wrote it.
Two days later, on Sunday, 16 October 1892, Cattell made a more specific confession, “I wish that I knew of the best way of keeping an account of my work. It often seems to me that I am so forgetful and yet I remember certain things which others might not be able to mind.”(p 146) Are the two confessions somehow related? Are we any closer to solving the mystery of Whitman’s brain? Historical research is filled with such tantalizing back alleys and dead-ends, and at first this seems like another one. However foolish Cattell may have felt on the 14th, by 31 October he was excited, noting “Pay day at the University [of Pennsylvania] to-morrow. I will get the largest sum which I have ever received at once clear viz. $183 1/3, the first annual check being the only one larger than this, but over $100 having to be directly paid out for work done.”(p 161)
Cattell was sometimes more candid and reflective, although still cryptic. Skipping ahead to an entry on 13 April 1893, he wrote, “I am a peculiar man in many ways. Why did I get rid of Edwards – in all probability because I was jealous of him.”(p 167) Money concerns about over-spending are also evident, but the biggest confession was yet to come.
In the privacy of his journal, about a month after his confession to being peculiar, Cattell fully confessed to the Whitman brain disaster, reflecting: “I am a fool, a damnable fool, with no conscious memory, or fitness for any learned position. I left Walt Whitman’s brain spoil by not having the jar properly covered. Discovered it in the morning. This ruins me with the [American] Antropometric Society, and [Harrison] Allen, perhaps with [William] Pepper [Jr], [Isaac Newton] Kerlin &c. How I ever got in such financial straights [I] do [not] know. When I broke with Edwards I should have told him to go to thunder. Borrowed over $500 more from P & M [Pa and Ma]. They are too good & kind. I would have killed my self before this a dozen times over if it had not been for them.”(p 179) This reflection, on Monday 15 May 1893, most likely relates to the briefer confession of 14 October 1892, and links with the Edwards dismissal, who seems to have taken the official blame until now. Self-doubt continued to plague Cattell. On 18 September 1893 he wrote, “I should be happy and I suppose in my way I am. Except for my parents I could go to Africa or die and I w[ou]ld be in no way missed.” (p 197) On 30 September 1893 he wrote, “I look back on my confidence and self possession of last year as somehow wonderful. I now know that I do not know enough pathology for the position which I occupy.” (p 203) Financial woes continued to plague Cattell for some time, but his diary entries were not all doom and gloom. On 17 October 1893, Cattell wrote: “My finances were never in so flourishing a condition and I felt like writing the other day that I was happier than I have ever been.” (p 215)
So, there it is, as clear as can be. Sometimes the facts do finally emerge, but (as in this case) it would always be welcome to learn more details. Who threw away Whitman’s brain? What exactly does it mean that it was spoiled by not having the jar properly covered? Was it knocked over by the cleaners? Did something strange get into the jar that contaminated it? Was Edwards at all involved or only a convenient scapegoat? Reading between the lines, Cattell appears to be the victim of extortion, perhaps by the disgraced assistant. Then, too, why put this incriminating evidence down on paper at all, risking public exposure? Clearly Cattell wanted to leave a confession that one day would become public – which now, 120 years later, has finally happened. At the end of this ledger there is a poem Cattell wrote on 9 June 1924. Perhaps it best summarises how he viewed his life, disregarding many honours as fraudulently gained, and the last lines allude to a lifetime of guilt concerning Whitman’s brain.
A Thoughts on glancing over the back pages of this book
A lovely life he had / No wife to warm his bed / No childish voice to hear / Or baby prattles dear / No loving arms entwined outlined / Around his neck outlined entwined.
Those many worldly things / Which lots of money brings / He had, too true, galore. / And honors many more / Than fall to better men / Were won with learned pen.
Now envy not his lot / For happy was he not / His sense of justice fair / Was found not longer there / A hell in every nook / For God he had forsook.
Even though the details may never be more certain, we at least have part of the answer to the mystery of what happened to Whitman’s brain and the lifetime of guilt by the responsible party.
Sheldon Gosline is researching the role of the physician as entrepreneur for his PhD thesis at University College London. It focuses on the the physician as entrepreneur through the life and career of S Andral Kilmer, MD.
 Brian Burrell, “The Strange Fate of Whitman’s Brain” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 20 (Winter 2003): 107-133. ir.uiowa.edu/wwqr/vol20/iss3/2/
 Cynthia Haven, “Frankenstein and Walt Whitman’s brain: ‘This is a grewsome story!’” bookhaven.stanford.edu/2012/06/frankenstein-and-walt-whitmans-brain-this-is-a-grewsome-story/
 “The True Story of Whitman’s Brain” www.youtube.com/watch?v=claBmga4ruc
 Edward Anthony Spitzka, “A Study of the Brains of Six Eminent Scientists and Scholars Belonging to the American Anthropometric Society together with a Description of the Skull of Professor E D Cope,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series 21:4(1907):175-308.
 Nathan Mackay “ Phrenological Whitman” www.conjunctions.com/archives/c29-nm.htm