Book helps solve investigation on UT’s missing brains

Cat Cardenas

A coffee table book turned national sensation. Though it sounds unrealistic, it is exactly what happened when Austin photographer Adam Voorhes and journalist Alex Hannaford released their book “Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital.” Though the book contains photographs of UT’s collection of brains, which date back to the ’50s, it is the brains that were not photographed that are now receiving national attention. 

When Voorhes and Hannaford originally started the project, they were informed the collection was incomplete. One-hundred of the original 200 brains were missing, and their whereabouts were completely unknown. Though Voorhes and Hannaford originally reached a dead end in their search for the brains in 2012, the release of their book this past Tuesday led to new information, which revealed 40-60 jars of the missing brains had actually been destroyed in 2002. 

Hannaford, however, believes the search isn’t over. 

“I’m not so sure,” Hannaford said. “I think it’s a stretch to say that 100 brains were destroyed in 40-60 jars; it doesn’t seem possible. That leads to the question — are there still missing brains?”

UT spokesman Gary Susswein hasn’t ruled out the possibility that some brains may still be missing. 

In an email statement released Wednesday, University officials announced their intentions to appoint an investigative committee to further understand the developing information. The committee will investigate the possibility that some brains were sent to other institutions and whether the brain of infamous UT Tower shooter Charles Whitman was included in the collection. 

“I think the committee is going to be looking broadly at how the specimens have been handled since arriving here,” Susswein said. “We’re very proud of the collection, but the episode over the last couple of days has raised some questions that we’re looking into.”

For Voorhes and Hannaford, “Malformed” helped to answer some of their questions, but not all of them. Both Voorhes and Hannaford said the jars of brains were virtually indistinguishable from each other, apart from tags which detailed the patient’s date of death and any conditions they had. Because of this, Voorhes became interested in the stories behind the patients themselves.

“When we first saw [the collection], it was wild,” Voorhes said. “I saw this Down syndrome brain, and it was marked as having been from 1983. That really struck me. I grew up then, and it just amazed me that someone with Down syndrome could have been sent to a state institution then.”

For Hannaford and Voorhes, their original investigation ended not only with the disposal of the brains, but with the disposal of the patients’ medical records. Although many of the brains were useful for studying diseases which were seen as incurable in the ’50s, it might now be impossible to find any information as to whom the brains belonged. The stories of these patients from the former Texas State Lunatic Asylum might be lost forever. 

“We wanted to understand more about the people,” Voorhes said. “That was my driving force. I wanted to know these people and what their lives were like. That’s why I was disappointed the records were gone; they were the key to all of this.”