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E. B. Titchener’s Brain on Display

The preserved brain of early psychologist Edward Bradford Titchener (1867-1927) is currently on display as part of Cornell University’s Wilder Brain Collection. Titchener, a British citizen who completed his doctorate in psychology with Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig, accepted a position at Cornell in 1892 and remained at the university for the rest of his career. At Cornell, he served as chair of the Department of Psychology and as head of the university’s psychology laboratory. From these positions, Titchener promoted his system of structuralism, which emphasized the use of introspection as a method of psychological investigation.

The Wilder Brain Collection, which features Titchener’s brain, was begun in 1889 by former Civil War surgeon Burt Green Wilder, an animal biologist and founder of Cornell’s Anatomy Department. WIlder’s desire to collect brains was not atypical for this time. As described in a 2005 article on the Widler Brain Collection in the New York Times,

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were the “golden age” of brain collecting…

One force behind the effort was a desire to drive religion from the field of science. Another was a belief, inherited from Franz Joseph Gall, the 18th-century founder of phrenology, that different parts of the brain served different functions.

Even if experts could not tell people apart by their cranial bumps, the theory went, if science closely compared one brain with another it would eventually be clear why one person differed from another, why one was a genius and another a criminal. The brain would reveal the person.

According to Cornell University’s newspaper, The Chronicle Online,

Wilder wanted to see if differences could be detected in size, shape, weight and amount of convolution between the brains of “educated and orderly persons” and women, murderers, racial minorities and the mentally ill. Eventually, it was concluded that such differences could not be detected, at least not by the naked eye or any 19th-century tools.

At its peak, the collection had at least 600 specimens, perhaps as many as 1,200, including human and animal brains as well as some body parts and fetuses. By the time Barbara Finlay, professor of cognitive and brain science, took over curating the collection in 1978, most of the specimens — many more than 100 years old — were dried up. All but 70 were purged; the eight selected for display, including Wilder’s, were chosen because they had biographies to go with them. The rest are stored in a cramped Uris Hall basement closet.

The full Wilder Brain Collection display is pictured directly above, while Titchener’s brain in pictured in the image on the top right. All images are courtesy of Jennifer Bazar.

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