Part one of an evolving mystery surrounding missing brains from the University of Texas at Austin may have been solved.
Although it sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, the matter is serious. In 1986, a collection of about 200 brains was donated to UT by the Austin State Hospital (then called the Texas State Lunatic Asylum). Since then, approximately 100 specimens — including one believed to belong to infamous UT Tower shooter Charles Whitman — have gone missing.
The case of the missing brains went viral this week thanks to an AP article on Wednesday. The story ignited an international media firestorm with articles appearing in everything from The Guardian to USA Today. The Los Angeles Times inaccurately reported that the brains had been found at the University of Texas at San Antonio (it has since been retracted). Those associated with the collection speculated that the missing brains had been shipped out to various institutions and never returned, but UT is refuting these claims.
According to a UT press release issued on Wednesday afternoon, preliminary investigations have found that the missing brains were destroyed in 2002. Anywhere from 40 to 60 jars — some containing multiple brains — were disposed of by environmental health officials.
"[The disposal] was done in coordination with faculty members who determined that the specimens had been in poor condition when the university received them in the 1980s and were not suitable for research or teaching," UT officials said in the release. "Faculty members then maintained possession of other brain specimens in the collection that the university continues to own."
The remaining brains originally gained attention after KUT published an article about the book Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital by local photographer Adam Voorhees and journalist Alex Hannaford. According KUT, Voorhees stumbled upon the collection a few years ago when he reached out to UT professor Tim Schallert hoping to photograph a brain. Instead of offering up a single brain, Schallert instead showed him an entire storage closet brimming with specimens.
During his visit, Schallert told Voorhees that the closet only housed about half of the original collection and that the missing specimens allegedly contained the brain of infamous UT shooter Charles Whitman. Intrigued by the mysterious missing brains, the claims about Whitman and the physical peculiarities of most of the specimens, Voorhees teamed up with Hannaford to research the history of the collection and how a good chunk went missing.
Although the university stated in Wednesday's press release that there is "no evidence" that any of the brains belonged to Whitman, the official investigation into the disposal of all the brains is still open.