Albert Einstein’s brain, famous as it was while it was still in use, also had a curious afterlife. Princeton Hospital pathologist Thomas Harvey performed the autopsy on Einstein after his death in 1955, and kept his brain in two Mason jars for more than 20 years until it was rediscovered in 1978 and caused a minor media sensation.
Before that happened, however, the weird journey of Einstein’s brain made its way through the University of Chicago, and the hands of neurologist Sidney Schulman. Schulman, who was the Ellen C. Manning professor emeritus of neurology at the University of Chicago, died at his Hyde Park home on January 31, 2014, from complications following a fall. He was 90.
Schulman was a highly respected clinician and a leading authority on the thalamus, often described as the “switchboard” of the brain because it relays sensory and motor impulses to the cerebral cortex for processing. In the 1950s and ’60s he performed important research, often inspired by his patients, on the impact of various neurologic disorders or infections on the thalamus. His work carefully correlated anatomical damage with loss of function. He also developed animal models to study the role of the thalamus in the acquisition and storage of short-term memories.
Schulman’s national reputation brought him to the attention of Princeton’s Harvey. In the 1960s, Harvey asked Schulman to analyze slices of the thalamus from Einstein’s brain in the hope that it might provide clues about the physicist’s unusual cognitive abilities. He sent Schulman pieces of tissue, carefully sectioned and stained for microscopic study. The tissues proved disappointingly normal and Schulman sent them back.
“At that time, Sidney was the best person for thalamus,” said his former resident, brain-tumor specialist Nicholas Vick, MD’65, chairman emeritus of neurology at NorthShore University Hospital System, in Evanston, IL. “He knew this request was kind of silly. But he studied the slides carefully and determined that Einstein’s thalamus was just like everyone else’s, nothing different.”
Years later, Harvey sent Schulman several additional samples from the brain, as a gift.
Schulman also helped demonstrate cross-species transmission of what was then a new type of infectious agent. In the late 1960s, he cared for a patient with advanced Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a fatal brain disorder caused by abnormal protein folding, similar to the disorder now known as “mad cow” disease. After the patient died, in 1968, Schulman inoculated a rhesus monkey with tissue from the patient’s brain. Six years later, the monkey developed symptoms identical to the human disease.
In addition to his research, he was a revered teacher. “He was absolutely splendid,” said his former student and colleague, cardiologist Louis Cohen, SB’49, MD’53, professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Chicago. “It was a gift to watch him do a neurological exam. There was no one so thorough or careful. Those who saw him perform the exam once, even if they had a different specialty, felt comfortable from then on doing it on their own.”
“Sid Schulman was why I became a neurologist,” said Jack Sipe, MD’68, professor and former head of neurology at the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in San Diego, Calif. Sipe, who did his neurology residency under Schulman’s guidance, described him as “the consummate professor, concerned, kind and compassionate.” Schulman had the complete trust of his patients, staff and colleagues. “He made students and residents felt like colleagues,” Sipe said. “I have always tried to emulate him as a scientist and as a physician.”
Born March 1, 1923, in Chicago, Sidney Schulman grew up in the city and graduated from the University of Chicago in 1944. In 1945 he married Mary Diamond, who he had met in college. He completed Medical School at the University of Chicago in 1946. He did his internship at the University of Chicago Medical Center, followed by two years of military service as chief of pediatrics at Rodriguez General Hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He returned to the Medical Center in 1949 for his neurology residency and fellowship, which he completed in 1951.
He then became an instructor in neurology at the University. He was promoted to assistant professor in 1952, associate professor in 1957 and professor in 1965. He served as section chief of neurology from 1966 to 1975.
He was elected president of the Central Society for Neurological Research in 1965 and served as secretary and then president of the Chicago Neurological Society from 1962 to 1965. From 1970 to 1974 he was an examiner for the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. From 1972 to 1975 he was vice chairman of the task force on research for the joint committee of the American Neurological Association and the American Academy of Neurology.
In 1975, following a restructuring of the neurology program at the University, Schulman took a sabbatical year at Harvard’s Boston Children’s Hospital. When he returned to campus he shifted his focus away from research and patient care and concentrated on sharing his knowledge of neuropathology, illustrated by his vast collection of slides, with neurology residents and teaching students in the College.
He soon became known for a popular class he developed for undergraduates on “Neurology and Kant’s Theory of Knowledge.” His central theme was to combine Kant’s 18th-century theory of cognition with current understanding of the nervous system, a blend that, he noted, “holds up well indeed.”
Schulman was consistently praised as a teacher who could get students to think critically, ask the right questions and distinguish trivial phenomena from true scholarship. In 1997, he was selected as one of the first to receive the Norman Maclean Faculty Award, which recognizes senior faculty who have made outstanding contributions to teaching and to the student experience of life on campus.
He retired in 1993 but continued to write and teach in the College for more than ten years.
Schulman’s wife Mary died in 2011. He is survived by three children: Samuel and his wife Elizabeth, Patricia, and Daniel and his wife Kathleen; and eight grandchildren.