Grey Matter

The Case of JFK's Missing Brain

As the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death approaches, a new book claims that president’s grey matter was swiped from the hospital back in 1963. Let’s review the facts.


The world that surrounds the JFK assassination is, at baseline, so bizarre and so susceptible to any cockamamie idea that the news that the former president’s brain is missing seems like a standard news dispatch, a routine day at an office where alien abductions are greeted with a bored shrug.

But the recent claim that the First Brain was swiped not by the CIA or the Cubans or Marilyn Monroe but by Kennedy’s own brother, the former attorney general of the United States, Robert Kennedy, has gotten enough mainstream attention to merit a thorough debunking.

The story is this: in a new book, End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy, author James Swanson reactivated the sleeper cells of JFK conspiracists—not a difficult task—with his incendiary claim that RFK had absconded with his brother’s brain. The reason, Swanson speculated, was not to keep people from learning the true truth about how many bullets, and from what angle, were shot at the president, but rather because RFK wanted to make certain the world didn’t find out the truth about JFK’s health.

I am not a card-carrying JFK conspiracist, though I do feel the tingle one gets when re-thinking and re-living those awful 1963 moments and the still-present uncertainty about who how and why, so I can’t comment on where in the JFK cosmology this fits. But I can say with 100-percent certainty that the notion that there was anything to learn about JFK’s health from his brain is completely nuts.

There are a few facts—remember them?—that can be interposed into the claims. It seems certain that the brain is missing. Although completely startling, it should be remembered that important parts of many people similarly are missing, especially their private parts: these include Napolean Bonaparte’s penis, the foreskin of Jesus Christ, the penis of King Tut, and other odd bits of anatomy of the rich and famous. Who can ever forget the failed attempt to steal and ransom Elvis’s remains?

So yes, somehow, JFK’s brain cannot be accounted for. No further comment. A second fact about JFK’s brain is that, horribly, Oswald’s bullet blew away a large portion of it. The autopsy of JFK describes that a “portion of the projectile [bullet] made its exit through the parietal bone [skull] on the right carrying with it portions of cerebrum [brain], skull, and scalp.” Furthermore, much brain was clearly missing. In a ghoulish recollection by the doctors who treated Kennedy and performed the autopsy, published as apart of a three-part series in JAMA, one recalls spotting Mrs. Kennedy near the emergency room bay where the nominally alive JFK was still being worked on. Dr Pepper Jenkins recalled, “I noticed that her [Mrs. Kennedy’s] hands were cupped in front of her…As she passed by, she handed me what she had been nursing in her hands—a large chunk of her husband’s brain tissue.”

I will add my only JFK story to the mix. As a medical student in my native Oklahoma, I worked briefly with a voluble surgeon who (claimed he) had been a resident in the same emergency room at Parkland years before on that day the president was brought in. He (the surgeon) was known to like a good story, particularly this one. “Well of course you know,” he told us, “he had half his head blown off. We didn’t know what to do. Half his head was missing.” I can’t vouch for any aspect of this tale, except that he was in fact a trained and talented surgeon, but the description strikes me as probably close to the truth.

The third fact to be mindful of is not speculative, a foggy memory, or mysterious. What, in 1966, could medical science learn about a person’s health even if they had in hand his preserved brain? Very, very, very, little. One disease worth concealing from the public can be diagnosed in brain tissue: advanced syphilis. But syphilis was readily disclosed by blood tests, even in 1966, and it seems unlikely that RFK was wondering about the positive predictive value of blood tests if and when he made off with the brain.

And there are surely other diseases diagnosed by brain biopsy—mad cow disease (unknown in 1966), Alzheimer’s (known but manifestly not present in the vibrant 46-year-old president and likely unknown to RFK), cancers, and weird inflammatory conditions that, in the pre-CT scan era, were mostly unknown in the living. Other than that, there is no disease found in the brain that would not be better revealed in the rest of the body (which presumably remains un-swiped). The stated concern that RFK was worried about someone uncovering the “truth” about his known (but concealed) thyroid disease and adrenal disease—this is hogwash. Even in 2013 the brain registers no evidence of these diseases.

And even in 2013, brain biopsies do not reveal anything about drug use or drug addiction. Some have written that JFK was under the care of Dr. Max Jacobson, aka Miracle Max, a then-famous Dr. Feelgood who gave special injections to the rich. His concoction consisted of speed and hormones and painkillers and other ingredients that apparently left clients feeling mighty good. One report claims he had visited JFK 34 times. possibly giving him the magic medicine each time.

RFK, not knowing the limits of the science of the 1960s or able to anticipate the science of the 2010s, may have worried that somehow the bad guys would, with brain in hand, be able to disclose to the world that the president was on a lot of drugs. But that seems to be a leap. For someone with as much information at his disposal as RFK, both as a smart guy and an attorney general, a single simple phone call could have assured him of the impossibility of such a revelation.

But what if the person taking the phone call had been an alien? Or Elvis? Or the alien who was pretending to be Elvis all that time? Or a pathologist who told JAMA Elvis was really JFK? Paranoia, or whatever the addiction to conspiracy theories should be called, is remarkable for many reasons but the most startling is its infinite resourcefulness and insatiability. As the latest “disclosure” surely tells us, we are a long way from letting go of the events from 50 years ago. Which is its own tragedy, because by now it seems time to let the youngest American president ever elected finally rest in peace.