Cornell Brains on Display Collection features brain of a 19th century murderer

In the late nineteenth century, Edward Rulloff terrorized the towns of Central New York. He was a serial killer and at one point escaped from prison. Today, his brain is on display at Cornell University.

Rulloff’s is one of a handful of brains in the Wilder Brain Collection. The specimens are housed in a display case on the second floor of Uris Hall within the psychology department.

Dr. Timothy DeVoogd, professor of psychology, oversees the collection. He said the brains aren’t used for research today, but at one point were instrumental in disproving common theories.

“These brains cannot tell us very much about the kinds of questions people are investigating now,” DeVoogd said. “But the brains were incredibly useful in the 1900s in saying that these ideas that people thought were scientific in fact didn’t hold up.”

In 1889 when Cornell professor Burt Green Wilder started the collection, the common theory about brains what that white male brains were larger than the brains of women and people of color. There was also a theory that educated people had larger brains than uneducated people and criminals.

The Wilder Brain Collection proved those theories false.

By collecting brains from a variety of deceased people, Wilder was able to prove that there were no observable differences between the brains of the educated and non-educated.

One of the brains in the collection is that of Helen Gardener, a Cornell professor and suffragist. Gardener used the brains to challenge another researcher who claimed male brains were superior to female brains.

“She said alright, I’ll send you five male brains, five female brains,” DeVoogd explained. “I’ll select them randomly and you tell me who’s who. And he said no I couldn’t do that. He just avoided her completely. Her point was that he could talk all he wanted to but when push came to shove, he couldn’t back up his statements.”

Gardener went on to serve as the liaison for President Woodrow Wilson’s administration to the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Upon her death, Gardener’s brain was donated to the collection where it remains today.

At one point at least 600 specimens were part of the collection, but poor organization by a previous curator led to most of the brains missing identification. Another problem was that the curator did not refill the preservative fluid that the brains are stored in, leading to many brains drying out.

Today, students, faculty and staff pass by the brain collection while walking on the second floor or Uris Hall. The display case is featured on a scavenger hunt for first year students at the beginning of each academic year, DeVoogd said.

As for teaching purposes, DeVoogd said he still uses the brains in class for their historical value.

“I think the students are very impressed,” DeVoogd said.” I try and convey to them as well that this should be treated with deep respect. That this is not a page in the textbook. This is the result of an individual who actually wanted to assist in education in the future.”

DeVoogd said he finishes classes each semester by explaining that the “biggest discoveries are still out there.” He said it is an exciting time to go into neuroscience.

“Who we are comes out of our brains,” DeVoogd said.

Created By
Kyle Stewart


All photos by Kyle Stewart

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