What We Missed Out On In The Missing Brain Case In New York City


Posted on 18th October 2010 by gjohnson in Uncategorized

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About two weeks ago I wrote about a horrendous case in New York City, where the local coroner had taken the brain of a 17-year-old youth killed in a car accident, Jesse Shipley, without notifying or getting permission from his family. In a horrifying twist of fate two months later, kids from the youth’s school went on a field trip to the morgue and saw the dead boy’s brain there, sitting in a jar with his name on it.


The case made the front page of the Big Apple’s two tabloids, the New York Post and Daily News. In reflecting on the matter, it really entailed several tragedies: The family’s pain over the discovery of Jesse’s vital organ, which they hand’r  even known was missing; the horror of the school mates that saw it; and the fact that there was no autopsy done on that brain.

After Jesse was killed in a car accident on Jan. 9, 2005, and his family agreed to an autopsy of the body the next day. The youth’s remains were picked up and a funeral was held three days later. What the Shipley family didn’t know was that Jesse’s brain was not with his body. 

The New York City Medical Examiner’s Office had kept Jesse’s brain to do tests on it, and that those tests were done a day or so after the field trip. Jesse’s family got a temporary restraining order to stop any additional tests on his brain, which was returned to them. 

It’s unclear what kind of tests the ME’s office did in fact do on the youth’s brain, or whether the coroner can keep those results, as his office is now being sued by Shipley’s family. The Shipley family filed a claim against New York City and the medical examiner’s office in March 2006, asking for damages for the improper handling of their son’s remains. 

I’ve been a vocal advocate of the need to have autopsie done more often on brains so that we learn more about the less traumative types of head injury, namely mild traumatic brain injury. 

With no sure-fire tests in existance now to detect the more subtle kinds of brain injury, we need all the clinical research done that we can. And the best research is examining an actual brain. Having an accurate gauge on brain injury is particularly important in terms of the future treatment of the thousands of U.S. troops who have suffered concussions in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.   

 We could have had that research opportunity with young Jesse’s brain, if the New York coroner hadn’t violated the rules by spiriting away the brain of a family’s loved one without its permission.

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