Already hailed as a genius during his lifetime, Józef Piłsudski's legend continued after his death. One of the most curious rumours about him is linked with the sensational afterlife of his brain and the mysterious circumstances of its ultimate disappearance.
Józef Piłsudski, the key architect of Polish independence after World War I, died in Warsaw on 12th May, 1935. On the same night, the doctors who performed the post-mortem examination removed and secured his brain, as well as his heart. Piłsudski's body was then treated with chemicals and embalmed.
Over the next couple of days the body was transported to Kraków and buried at Wawel Cathedral, in what turned out to be out to be one of the biggest public gatherings in the history of the country, with some 100 thousand attending.
A couple days later in Warsaw's Belvedere Palace, Piłsudski's brain, now residing in a jar of formaldehyde and Karlsbad salts, was handed over to Professor Maksymylian Rose of the Polish Brain Research Institute. It was then transferred to the Brain Institute's headquarters in Wilno (currently Vilnius, Lithuania), for the purpose of being subjected to a detailed and time-consuming neuro-anatomic examination.
Rose, who was the director of the Institute, one of the leading neuroanatomists of the time, and ‘an expert on cytoarchitecture’, had only recently turned to a new and ever more fashionable branch of neuroanatomy. The research of so-called ‘elite brains’ was a new field, gaining popularity in Europe in the first decades of the 20th century, with major research institutes located in Berlin (Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für Hirnforschung), Madrid (Instituto Cajal), and Moscow (Institut Mozga, which gained worldwide fame after it performed pioneering research on Vladimir Lenin’s brain).
The saviour of Poland
Piłsudski's brain was now to become the most splendid object of research at the new Polish institution in this pioneering field. The Marshal, as Piłsudski was widely known in his country, was already considered a genius during his lifetime. His political skills manifested themselves quite clearly during and immediately after WWI, when Piłsudski, a leading Socialist politician, became the driving force behind Poland's independence. The legend was further corroborated by his role in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921, and particularly the Battle of Warsaw of 1920, a victory which was ascribed either to the tactical genius of Piłsudski or the miraculous intervention of the Virgin Mary. Piłsudski was hailed as the saviour of Poland.
While his later bold political moves included a controversial coup d'état in May 1926, which made him head of state and quasi-authoritarian dictator of Poland, belief in his infallibility and incredible mental powers was widespread. Some of his contemporaries even thought he possessed psychic powers such as foretelling future events or predicting the moves of his opponents at chess.
The marshal himself very likely shared some of these most favourable opinions about his mental capacities. In his last will, and despite his general aversion to doctors and medicine, Piłsudski bequeathed his brain to science. The ‘architectural’ examination of his brain was to determine the true nature of the marshal's genius.
The mysterious death of Professor Rose
At the Vilnius Institute Piłsudski's brain was cut into pieces (that is, sections), photographed, and meticulously described. Professor Rose had little doubt he was dealing with the brain of a genius:
‘Every expert on the subject, based solely on macroscopic research, will notice the impeccable development of the cerebral gyri, along with a whole range of other important details [...] The author of these words however shall refrain from drawing any conclusions before the full architectonic examination is completed.’
Unfortunately, we don't know what the ultimate conclusion of Professor Rose's splendid research was. He died of a heart attack in November 1937 while at work in his laboratory. Rose left the whole enterprise unfinished, with nobody to step in and take his place.
In 1938, the results of his work were published in a bilingual Polish-French book entitled Mózg Piłsudskiego (Piłsudski's Brain). The publication, with a foreword by the professor and accompanied by an atlas of photographic plates showing the layers of the Marshal’s brain, was published in unspecified number of copies, with fewer than 20 copies remaining today.
The brain vanishes
However, the story of Piłsudski's brain does not end there. After Rose's death Piłsudski's brain was allegedly kept in a small mausoleum-like structure at the Institute, vouchsafed by the professor's assistant, Doctor Jerzy Borysowicz. By the start of WWII in September 1939, however, the brain had disappeared in unexplained circumstances.
One hypothesis suggests that the brain could have been transported to Warsaw even before the outbreak of WWII, and was eventually destroyed there during the war. According to another theory, the Institute's collection was taken to Russia after the Soviets entered Wilno ‒ if true this would mean that the brain could be kept at Moscow's Institut Mozga. Berlin is also mentioned as a possible destination. According to yet another theory the brain was buried on the premises of the Institute of Brain Research in Vilnius. In the latter case, its final resting place would be near the marshal's heart, which was buried with his mother in the Rasos cemetery in Vilnius.
See the book Mózg Piłsudskiego at Polona.pl.
For more about Piłsudski see Daring Tombstone Reproduction at Biennale of Architecture
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, source: www.blog.polona.pl, May 11, 2016