President Kennedy’s brain went missing from the National Archives in 1966

kennedy brain
Picture of President Kennedy in the limousine in Dallas, Texas, on Main Street, minutes before the assassination.

In November 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot through the head while motorcading through the streets of Dallas, Texas. The months, years, and decades that followed brought on a tidal wave of conspiracy theories, documentaries, books and even Hollywood movies, each of which brought forth their own conclusion about what really happened that day.

The actions of the federal government did nothing to help calm the storm of public outrage and wonder about who might have killed the beloved president. For example, the Secret Service forced the Dallas County Coroner’s office to give up the president’s body before an autopsy could be conducted, in violation of state laws. 

There are more examples, but the most glaring one for many conspiracy theorists is that Kennedy’s brain, donated to the National Archives shortly after the assassination, went missing in 1966, and no one has seen or heard about it ever since. 

The official conclusion drawn by the Congressional commission to investigate the assassination, led by Chief Justice of the United States Earl Warren, concluded that Kennedy was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, a former U.S. Marine and expert marksman, in Dallas that day. Kennedy’s personal physician, Rear Adm. George Burkley, arrived at the hospital five minutes after the president and saw there was no way Kennedy would survive. 

Kennedy was pronounced dead at 1 p.m. local time. Burkley listed the cause of death on Kennedy’s death certificate as “gunshot wound, skull.” An hour later, the body was taken from the hospital to Air Force One, where it was loaded onto the plane and flown back to the Washington, D.C. area. His full autopsy was conducted at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, that night.  

president kennedy brain
Secret Service Special Agent Clint Hill shields the occupants of the presidential limousine moments after the fatal shots.

Rear Adm. Burkley also noted that shard of Kennedy’s skull had entered the president’s brain and that another shot hit Kennedy in the back, which exited through his trachea. Later panels and commissions confirmed the two shots. After all was said and done, and there were no more test to conduct on the slain president’s remains, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. 

All except his brain, that is. 

Kennedy’s brain was removed during the autopsy and kept for further study. According to FBI agent Francis X. O’Neill, more than half of the brain was missing, and he watched doctors removed it and place in it a white jar for further study. It was then placed in a stainless steel jar in the National Archives. By 1966, the jar and its contents were missing. 

A number of subsequent and related conspiracy theories give some reasons for the canister’s disappearance. Some believe it was removed because the brain would prove that Kennedy was not shot from up and back, as the Warren Commission (and other panels of experts) had concluded. They believe the biological evidence would show he was shot from the front. Others believe it was removed by his brother, Robert Kennedy, to hide the full extent of the president’s ongoing illnesses and the volume of medication he was taking to treat those illnesses. President Kennedy’s illnesses and treatments have long since been made public. 

Some believe the brain that was preserved in the National Archives was never that of Kennedy’s. After looking at remaining photographs of the brain that was housed in the archives, Navy photographer John T. Stringer said the brain he photographed and the photos of the brain in the archives weren’t the same brain

Whether the brain was in the National Archives or not, if it was stolen, and why will continue to be mysteries for the foreseeable future, as no one can locate the canister or its contents – no matter whose brain might be there.