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Albert Einstein's Desk, Photographed A Day After His Death In 1955

Albert Einstein’s office – just as the Nobel Prize-winning physicist left it, taken mere hours after Einstein died, Princeton, New Jersey, April 1955.

Albert Einstein, whose groundbreaking theories revolutionised our understanding of the universe, passed away on April 18, 1955, due to heart failure at the age of 76.

His funeral and cremation were kept remarkably private, with only one photographer, Ralph Morse of Life Magazine, managing to document the events of that remarkable day.

Armed with his camera and a case of whisky — to facilitate access and encourage openness — Morse captured a solemn record of the passing of a 20th-century icon. However, apart from one now-iconic photograph depicting Einstein's office exactly as he left it, taken shortly after his passing, the images Morse captured on that day remained unpublished.

Einstein's son requested the family received privacy during their mourning period. In response, LIFE Magazine's editors decided against publishing the full story. As a result, Ralph Morse's photographs remained forgotten in the magazine's archives for over five decades.

Albert Einstein’s papers, pipe, ashtray and other personal belongings in his Princeton office, April 18, 1955.

Meanwhile, the tale of how Morse acquired the photographs serves as a testament to perseverance and quick thinking. Upon receiving a call one April morning from a LIFE editor informing him of Einstein's passing, Morse swiftly gathered his cameras and made the ninety-mile journey to Princeton.

“Einstein died at the Princeton Hospital, so I headed there first. But it was chaos — journalists, photographers, onlookers. So I headed over to Einstein’s office. On the way, I stopped and bought a case of scotch. I knew people might be reluctant to talk, but most people are happy to accept a bottle of booze instead of money in exchange for their help. So I get to the building, find the superintendent, give him a fifth of scotch and like that, he opens up the office”.

Einstein’s body was moved for a short time during the afternoon from the hospital to a funeral home in Princeton. The casket containing Einstein, post-autopsy, only stayed at the funeral home for an hour or so.

Albert Einstein’s casket, moved for a short time from the Princeton Hospital to a funeral home, Princeton, New Jersey, April 1955.

Morse arrived at the funeral home and saw two men loading a casket into a hearse. He wasn't sure if the funeral would be taking place quickly so on the off chance it was he drove Princeton Cemetery to get a spot near the grave.

“I drive out to the cemetery to try and find where Einstein is going to be buried”, Morse remembers. “But there must have been two dozen graves being dug that day! I see a group of guys digging a grave, offer them a bottle, ask them if they know anything.

One of them says, ‘He’s being cremated in about twenty minutes. In Trenton!’ So I give them the rest of the scotch, hop in my car, and get to Trenton and the crematorium just before Einstein’s friends and family show up”.
“I didn’t have to tell anyone where I was from”, Morse says of his time spent photographing the events of the day. “I was the only photographer there, and it was sort of a given that if there was one photographer on the scene, chances were good he was from LIFE”.

Early in the day, Einstein's son Hans casually inquired about Morse's name, a seemingly trivial and friendly question. However, within a few hours, this simple exchange would unfold into significant consequences.

From left: Frida S. Bucky; Albert Einstein’s son, Hans Albert (in light suit); unidentified woman; Einstein’s longtime secretary, Helen Dukas (in light coat); and friend Dr. Gustav Bucky (partially hidden behind Dukas) arriving at the Ewing Crematorium, Trenton, New Jersey, April 18, 1955.
“As the day was winding down, I was pretty excited”, Morse recalls, “because I knew I was the only fellow with these pictures. This was big news! Einstein was a huge public figure, world-famous, and we had this story cold”, Morse headed to Manhattan, and the LIFE offices, certain he’d be celebrated for his scoop.

Einstein’s autopsy was conducted in a lab at Princeton Hospital by pathologist Thomas Stoltz Harvey shortly after his death in 1955. Harvey removed and weighed the brain at 1230g.

Dr. Thomas Harvey (1912 – 2007) was the pathologist who conducted the autopsy on Einstein at Princeton Hospital in 1955.

Afterward, he transported it to a laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, where he proceeded to dissect Einstein's brain into multiple pieces. Some segments he retained for personal study, while others were distributed to prominent pathologists.

Harvey asserted that he aimed to uncover valuable insights through cytoarchitectonics. He administered a 50% formalin injection through the internal carotid arteries, followed by suspending the intact brain in a 10% formalin solution.

Slides of Einstein's brain on display at London's Wellcome Collection, 2012

Harvey photographed the brain from many angles. He then dissected it into about 240 blocks (each about 1 cm3) and encased the segments in a plastic-like material called collodion.

Harvey also removed Einstein’s eyes and gave them to Henry Abrams, Einstein’s ophthalmologist.



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