The Brain of the Hagströmer Library

The office that I am proud to call mine, is furnished with furniture that once belonged to Gustaf Retzius. It is heavy black-painted oak pieces, a far cry from the light wood and steel framed things that are in vogue today. And I absolutely love it! The furniture was custom made in the late 19th century to accommodate Retzius’ requirements and it consists of a desk with plenty of drawers, a chair which can be lowered or raised at will, and the walls are lined with several book cases of different sizes, with glass doors. There are of course plenty of books on the shelves and a large part of them once belonged to Retzius; one case is actually dedicated solely to his own scientific production. These books are all very large and luxuriously bound and Biologische Untersuchungen (Neue Folge, 1890-1921) in 19 volumes immediately catches the eye with their vellum spines (imitation; but still…). But they are matched by the two decorated half leather tomes of Studien in der Anatomie des Nervensystems und des Bindegewebes (1875-1876), just to mention another example out of several.

But there are more things than books on the shelves. A nice collection of polished sea shells, among them that of a nautilus octopus (which reminds you of the related ammonites that have been extinct for millions of years) graces one shelf. Different kinds of instruments are on display, many of them worth an essay of their own; there are some microscopes – the nicely wrought brass one from the early 19th century once used by Gustaf’s father Anders Retzius and the almost modern looking brass piece that was Gustaf’s own. On a couple of comparatively low book cases behind my back when seated at the desk there are a couple of life-size plaster busts of Gustaf and Anna Retzius. The look sternly down over my shoulders and make sure I don’t loiter…

On one shelf there is an incongruous cardboard box. In its mundane simplicity it looks quite out of place where it sits. It carries a label with the following words, which reads in English translation: “RETZIUS. Careful, in spirits” written with a red felt pen. There are additional comments in other hands on it: Beside Retzius’ name it says “teetotaler” and below that it says “Fröding. Accustomed to strong drink”. But why would anyone write comments about the famous Swedish poet Gustaf Fröding’s (1860-1911) drinking habits, or for that matter those of Gustaf Retzius on a cardboard box? The answer is, of course, the contents of the box. Sometimes, on request, I remove the box and carefully put it down on my desk. When I open the top to reveal what’s inside I always get ”interesting” reactions. Amazement, fascination, curiosity, surprise, disgust. Nobody is left untouched! In a glass container resting on a wooden tray is a human brain preserved in alcohol.

So the question arises; Who’s brain is it? Gustaf Retzius was, among other things, a very skilled histologist, and he published studies of some famous people’s brains. He was part of a group of physicians calling themselves the Brain Club and they had an agreement between them. They wanted their own brains to be removed and studied after their deaths by the remaining members of the group. Folke Henschen removed Retzius’ brain, under the supervision of Anna Retzius, shortly after his death in 1919. The brain was afterwards properly labeled and stored. Some years earlier Gustaf Fröding had died at the mental institution Ulleråker in Uppsala, and his brain had also been taken care of. What could be more interesting than studying the brain of a mad poet?

The two brains were never studied but were kept safe together for decades, until in the late 20th century, when someone with too much time on his or her hands, got the bright idea to remove the labels, thereby making the brains anonymous. Some misguided sense of ethics probably led to this decision. More time passed and one of the brains ended up in the Hagströmer Library and the other had several different “homes”. It was for a time part of a traveling exhibition called (O)mänskligt ((In)human). This exhibition also contained the famous regalia of the Pawnee Scout and performer White Fox who died in Sweden in 1875. After some time at the Ethnographical Museum of Stockholm the brain ended up in a museum depot in Tumba. With the help of Björn Wiklund the latter brain has also been brought to the Hagströmer Library and I now have both of them in my office.

The brains seems to be irrevocably mixed up. However there may be a solution. Physiologist Birgitta Sundelin examined the two brains before the labels were removed and she has offered to examine them again. She thinks it is quite possible that she can identify them. When this has been done the result will be reported.

Dan Jibréus, 22 March 2017

The text is from Folke Henschen’s autobiography Min långa väg till Salamanca, and lists the brains that were in the KI collections at the time of writing (1957).

Photo: Dan Jibréus