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National

Missing Brains May Have Been Destroyed

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The mystery of the missing brains - it could be the title of a cable movie, but it's already a good headline for a story that we aired last week. It was about a collection of human brains that are kept in a basement closet at the University of Texas. They'd been stored there by a pathologist at a state mental institution. Matt Largey, who reported last week's story, joins us now from KUT in Austin. Matt, thanks very much for being back with us.

MATT LARGEY, BYLINE: Nice to be here.

SIMON: And remind us of what you reported last week - a room filled with brains must be a startling sight.

LARGEY: It certainly is. Dozens of brains in glass jars - it's what's left of this collection at the University of Texas that came here in 1986 from the Austin State Hospital. It was a mental institution here in town. So they kind of sat in a closet in a basement lab for about 25 years until they were happened upon by a photographer here in town named Adam Voorhees. And he started to dig into them a little bit more and, you know, found that a hundred of these brains were missing, that half the collection had gone missing over the decades that they'd been sitting there.

SIMON: And there was some news this week about what might've happened to those brains.

LARGEY: That's right. Yeah, after Adam Voorhees and a friend of his named Alex Hannaford - they did some digging into this and they actually wrote a book and it came out on Tuesday. And the story kind of blew up and it was kind of an emergency for the university to figure out where these brains went. And so they - pretty short order, they figured out by talking to staff who'd been at the university for a long time, they found that the missing half of the collection had actually been destroyed back in 2002.

SIMON: Routinely destroyed we must say because they were classified as what amounts to biological waste.

LARGEY: That's right, yeah. The way to university puts it, at some point it was determined that these brains didn't have any value for research or teaching or anything like that. Many of them had been dissected many times and so they were in pieces, I guess.

SIMON: We had reported last week that among the brains that might be missing was that of Charles Whitman - the University of Texas shooter - went to the top of the Texas Tower after he'd killed his wife and his mother and shot and killed 14 more people from the top of the tower. And the authors of the book said that he had wanted his brain to be left for research to see if that had somehow been responsible - some kind of disorder - for his actions. What about his brain, do we know?

LARGEY: Well, we know that the autopsy on Whitman was done by the same pathologist who was the doctor at the state hospital who collected these brains. And the professor who had been overseeing them, he'd been told that Whitman's brain was among this collection when it was given to the university in 1986, but it seemed to be among the missing ones. The university, after its investigation this week, said that it had no evidence that Whitman's brain was among them, but, then again, if it was among those that were destroyed, then any evidence would have been destroyed in that process.

SIMON: And I guess we should remind ourselves, we're talking about brains, but not just brains, are they? We're talking about the lives of people that these brains were a part of.

LARGEY: That's right, yeah. I mean, these - the owners of these brains in life, you know, they lived at this state hospital. Just looking at the condition of the brains now I can only imagine what they endured in life and now their brains were taken by questionable means. It's not entirely clear if it was legal for them to be taken by the doctor at the state hospital and then they were put in these jars. And it's upsetting to look at them, honestly, to see, you know, to imagine the circumstances of their life and then to see them there - it makes you consider your own brain, I suppose.

SIMON: Well, a tough story to report. Thank you for doing it, Matt.

LARGEY: No problem.

SIMON: Matt Largey, of member station KUT in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.