Among the 200 or so brains trucked from the Austin State Hospital campus just down the road to the Animal Resources Center at the University of Texas was one that would raise eyebrows among the few people who got the chance to see it. This one belonged to Charles Whitman.
On August 1, 1966, Whitman, a 25-year-old engineering student at UT, took an elevator to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower—a 307-foot-tall structure a scant few miles south of ASH that has become the college’s most distinguishing landmark—carrying with him guns, food, and ammo. A former Marine sharpshooter who had never before committed a crime, Whitman then began methodically shooting people at random with a high-powered rifle: students walking to class, random shoppers, even a man sitting in a barber’s chair.
Ninety-six minutes later, Whitman was fatally shot by police officers. At end of his deadly shooting rampage, he had killed 16 people and wounded 32.
Police later discovered that the night before the shooting, Whitman had gone to the apartment building where his mother lived and stabbed and shot her to death. Later that night, he stabbed and killed his wife as she lay sleeping in their bed.
What would became known as the Texas Sniper shootings is considered one of the worst mass school killings in American history. After his death, Whitman’s body was transferred to the Cook Funeral Home, and an autopsy performed on his body by Dr. Coleman de Chenar, the ASH pathologist. Whitman had actually requested the autopsy himself in a note he left behind for police to find, urging physicians to examine his brain for signs of mental illness. He had sought medical advice several times in his lifetime, suspecting mental illness as the culprit for his severe headaches and intense feelings of hostility, but he was never formally diagnosed with any condition.
Chenar noted in his brief report that Whitman’s skull was “unusually thin.” He pointed out various fractures in the skull, a splinter in the temporal bone, and bleeding—all of which were a result of the police officers’ rounds of bullets—but in the middle part of Whitman’s brain, the pathologist found a five-centimeter-long tumor. At the conclusion of the study, Whitman’s brain was returned to ASH, where it reportedly ended up in the collection of specimens then housed at the hospital.
Fast-forward almost 50 years and we’re inside the Animal Resources Center checking every labeled specimen in the collection of archaic brains. But Whitman’s isn’t there. There are other brains—sliced and diced and in jars without labels. Could these be parts of Whitman’s brain that the report says was dissected in de Chenar’s original autopsy the day after the killings?
Whitman’s, it transpires, wasn’t the only brain missing from the collection. Tim Schallert, a neuroscientist at UT and the collection’s curator, says that when the original brains were bequeathed to the University of Texas, there were around 200 specimens. By the mid-1990s, they were taking up much-needed shelf space at the Animal Resources Center, and Dr. Jerry Fineg, the center’s then-director, asked Schallert if he would move half of the jars elsewhere.