By Juan A. Lozano
HOUSTON — Dozens of human brains seemed to be missing from a research lab at the University of Texas in Austin. One professor guessed students either pulled a Halloween prank or went looking for an odd home decoration in the form of formaldehyde-packed jars.
Turns out, the story wasn’t so mysterious.
The university said Wednesday that environmental workers disposed of between 40 and 60 jars, some of which contained multiple brains, about 12 years ago after faculty members said they weren’t in good enough condition for research or teaching.
The questions were promoted by a recently released book about a brain collection that the university received 28 years ago from the Austin State Hospital. The thought-to-be missing specimens were part of the original collection of 200 brains and had been stored at the campus’ Animal Resources Center.
On Tuesday, psychology professor Tim Schallert, a co-curator of the collection, told the Austin American-Statesman it wasn’t clear what had happened to about half of the collection. Fellow professor and co-curator Lawrence Cormack said it was “possible word got around among undergraduates and people started swiping them for living rooms or Halloween pranks.”
The university then investigated. On Wednesday, the school said it couldn’t provide a specific number of how many brains were destroyed. It also said a committee would be appointed to investigate the decision to destroy some of the brains and how all the specimens have been handled since the school received the collection.
“As researchers and teachers, we understand the potential scientific value of all of our holdings and take our roles as stewards of them very seriously,” the university said in a statement.
The school’s preliminary investigation also found no evidence to support claims that the brain of Charles Whitman, who fatally shot 16 people from the university’s clock tower in 1966, was ever part of the collection.
“It may have been an urban legend that developed over the years,” university spokesman Gary Susswein said Wednesday. He also said the school was still investigating whether any of the brains were shared with other institutions.
The school said it determined that environmental health and safety officials disposed of multiple brain specimens around 2002, “in accordance with protocols concerning biological waste,” and that faculty members maintained possession of the remaining brain specimens that still belong to the university.