After Losing Its Minds and Losing Hope, University of Texas Finally Finds Its Brains

The University of Texas at Austin (UT) “Longhorns” had quite the mystery on their hands — they’ve lost their minds.  More precisely they’ve lost around 100 cerebral samples.  That’s pretty series as it’s roughly half the brains UT is in possession of.  But after much distress there’s cause for optimism at last.

I. Missing Minds and Madness

Earlier this week the media got their hands on Adam Voorhes’ new coffee-table book, Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital. Featuring beautiful photos by Alex Hannaford, the coffee table book recalls the outlandish, underreported mystery.  The report triggered a buzz that grew into a media frenzy.  What had happened to UT’s brains?

The story might have end there, with fervor over the decades old loss gradually dying down.  But in a wild twist, UT announced today that it believe it has found its brains, citing the media coverage as generating awareness that possibly cracked the case.

UT had roughly 200 brains in its collection, many of which were ruled “malformed”.
[Image Source: Adam Voorhes]
The missing minds were being stored in jars at the school’s Department of Psychology, which is affiliated with the Austin State Hospital (ASH), the oldest psychiatric hospital in the state of Texas.  University officials believed the brain drain may be the result of a cruel joke played by pranksters, but at this point they’ve got a whole lot of missing minds and no solid leads.

The brains came from roughly a hundred “donors”, most of them former severely mentally ill patients at the Texas State Lunatic Asylum which opened in 1861 and treated the mentally ill until 1925, when it was renamed, reopening as the ASH.  Today the hospital has 299-beds.

A postcard shows the Texas State Asylum (now ASH), the state’s oldest psychiatric hospital.
[Image Source: AustinPostcards]
Some samples also came from perpetrators of violent crimes.  Among these was reportedly the brain of Charles Joseph Whitman, a former UT mechanical engineering student and decorated U.S. Marine Corps sniper.

II. Diseased Mind of Marine Sniper Who Went on Killing Spree Among the Lost Specimens

Whitman joined up after high school and served an eighteen-month tour with the USMC in 1.  He was stationed out of the infamous Guantanamo Bay military base in southeast Cuba, he completed a tour and was studying at UT in 1961.  Unhappy with his mediocre grades, the USMC pulled him out of college in Feb. 1963, saying his marks were too low for him to pursue academics.

A high school yearbook photo of Charles Whitman [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]
Newly married and returning to active service things quickly took a turn for the worse when the USMC caught wind that Mr. Whitman, a compulsive gambler, was leading a low-stakes gambling ring at his base.  That offense led to a court martial hearing and his demotion from the rank of Lance Corporal to Private.  Nonetheless he was honorably discharged in 1964 after serving a brief stint as a Private.  

Returning home he worked several jobs to try to make ends meet for him and his wife.  But he reportedly became addicted to amphetamines and began to physically abuse his wife, something he wrote he reportedly deeply regreted having grown up in an abusive household.

In May 1966 his mother filed for divorce against his father, citing physical abuse.  Facing money problems, family problems, and drug addiction, Mr. Whitman recalled in a suicide note, “I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.”

Charles Whitman carried an arsenal up to the Observation Deck of UT’s tallest building.  Barricading himself inside, he began shooting at people walking the campus below.  He killed 14 and wounded 32 during the shooting spree. [Image Source: FBI photo]
Between July 31 and Aug. 1, 1966 Mr. Whitman — then aged 25 — proceeded to kill his wife and mother in a series of attacks.  Not stopping his muderous rampage, he proceeded to procure guns and munitions and ascended the tallest building on the UT campus, the Main Building.

Travelling to the Observation Deck just above the 27th floor, he killed three people who were sight-seeing from the deck.  Barricading the doors, he then proceeded to employ his USMC-honed sniper skills to shoot people walking about the campus below.

In total he killed 11 people, including a professor, a police officer, an electrician, and several students.  He wounded 32 others, many of which survived as he adhered to the USMC principal of never shooting a target twice.  He was eventually shot and killed by police.  In a suicide note later found he asked, “If you can find in yourselves to grant my last wish, cremate me after the autopsy.”

In another note, though, he wrote, “After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed on me to see if there is any visible physical disorder.”

A state medical autopsy revealed Whitman’s murderous impulses may have stemmed from a small tumor which had begun to compromise his mind. [Image Source: HealthArea.org]
Police honored his latter wish, ultimately donating his brain to ASH after the autopsy.  Perhaps the most fascinating detail of the tragic case was that former Private Whitman was right — there may actually have been a medical cause for his violent psychosis.  A state medical report [PDF] found Mr. Whitman had a small, but serious brain tumor.  The report concluded:
The highly malignant brain tumor conceivably could have contributed to his inability to control his emotions and actions.
The preserved brain was housed there for several decades as a teaching aid.  The Tower shooting remained the deadliest college campus shooting until the shootings at Virginia Tech University in 2007.

III. Buzz Around Decade Old Mystery of UT’s Lost Minds Grows

UT Neuroscience Professor Tim Schallert, co-curator of the collection told the Austin American-Statesman that Mr. Whitman’s preserved brain was indeed likely among the lost specimens.  He states:
It would make sense it would be in this group. We can’t find that brain.
 
A photograph shows one of the “malformed brains” in the collection. [Image Source: Adam Voorhes]
Psychology professor Lawrence Cormack was co-curator of the collection of brains and was bewildered as to how so many minds could be lost.  He commented to the Austin American-Statesman:
It’s entirely possible word got around among undergraduates and people started swiping them for living rooms or Halloween pranks.
The collection was original assembled by UT medical professor Dr. Coleman de Chenar who worked as a resident pathologist at ASH.  In 1986 much of the collection was transferred from ASH to UT’s Animal Resources Center (ARC) under a “temporary possession”.  The last anyone saw of the specimens, they were set to ship bash to ASH from the ARC.  This happened sometime in the early 1990s, according to Professor Schallert.  Nobody recalls seeing them after that.

A photo documents the remaining specimens in UT’s collection. [Image Source: Adam Voorhes]
In the 90s UT had some requests to examine the specimens.  As the government was tied to the specimens curation, a state investigation ensued.  That process ultimately led to the discovery that UT had far less brains than it thought.  Both co-curators were bewildered.  

But the loss was not widely reported until an account of it was published in Mr. Voorhes photobook about the collection.  In a statement to USA Today, university officials stated:
[We are examining] the circumstances surrounding this collection since it came here nearly 30 years ago.  [UT is] committed to treating the brain specimens with respect.

UT curators had last seen the missing half of the collection more than two decades ago. [Image Source: Adam Voorhes]
Professor Cormack estimated that UT lost roughly half its brains.  Lest it lose what little it had left, he’s carrying out a project to scan the brains with high-resolution MRI imaging. These scans will come in handy if samples are ever damaged or lost again.  He comments:
These MRI images will be both useful teaching and research tools. It keeps the brains intact.
The brains are beings stored at the Norman Hackerman Building during the scanning process.  UT hopes to one day find its lost minds, including Mr. Whitman’s, but both curators of the collection sounded resigned to the fact that UT may have lost many of its best brains for good.

IV. What Once was Lost, Now is Found

But the story isn’t finished.  There is a twist.  A mind-bender, if you will.

After the media commotion over the new book and the lost brains began to build, a faculty member at UT’s other campus, the University of Texas in San Antonio (UTSA) saw an article on the brains.  That’s curious, they thought, the brains are sitting right here at our facility.

The brains were actually lurking at UT San Antonio and weren’t lost at all! [Image Source: AP]
The faculty called Professor Schallert to share the good news.  Professor Schallert was estatic.  In a comment to The Los Angeles Times, he remarks:
I didn’t think this would get this much interest in the media.  But thanks to media reports, we now know what happened.

[UT San Antonio] has the brains.  They read a media report of the missing brains and they called to say: “We got those brains!”  I know the brains will be treated very well there.

[Will we get them back?]  It’s been a very fluid situation.
Faculty at UT San Antonio are reportedly using the collection to study the progression of Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases.  The snakebitten master artist, Vincent van Gogh once state, “I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.”


The brains are back. [Image Source: Adam Voorhes]
But if there’s one thing to learn from this wild tail, it’s that even the most seemingly hopelessly lost of minds may someday be recovered, if society cares enough.