The Baffling Mystery Of What Happened To John F. Kennedy’s Brain

Published January 13, 2022
Updated June 17, 2024

Where is JFK's brain? This mystery has puzzled America since 1966, when the 35th president's brain suddenly went missing from the National Archives.

More than half a century later, many in the United States still wonder who was really behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But others have a different question altogether: Whatever happened to JFK’s brain?

Though the 35th president’s body is interred at Arlington National Cemetery, his brain has been missing since 1966. Was it stolen to conceal evidence? Taken by his brother? Or was the brain actually replaced even before it went missing?

Where Is JFKs Brain

National Archives and Records AdministrationJohn F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, shortly before his assassination.

Here’s everything we know about the enduring mystery of JFK’s brain.

Inside Kennedy’s Assassination And Autopsy

The saga of John F. Kennedy’s brain begins on the day he was killed. On Nov. 22, 1963, the president was assassinated while driving through Dallas, Texas. That night, an autopsy at Bethesda Naval Hospital in D.C. determined that the president had been shot twice from above and behind.

JFK Brain Injury

Public DomainA diagram provided to Congress which shows how one of the bullets passed through JFK’s brain.

“There was not much of the brain left,” recalled FBI agent Francis X. O’Neill Jr., who was present at the autopsy. “More than half of the brain was missing.”

He watched as the doctors removed the brain and put it “in a white jar.” The doctors also noted in their autopsy report that “The brain is preserved and removed for further study.”

According to James Swanson in End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy, the brain was eventually put in a stainless steel container with a screw-top lid and moved to the National Archives.

There, it was “placed in a secure room designated for the use of JFK’s devoted former secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, while she organized his presidential papers.”

But by 1966, the brain, tissue slides, and other autopsy materials had vanished. And a subsequent investigation proved unable to locate them.

What Happened to JFK’s Brain?

Where is JFK’s brain? Though no one knows for sure, a number of theories have emerged in the past several decades.

Conspiracy theorists suggest that JFK’s brain holds the truth about his death. Officially, his autopsy found that he’d been struck twice from “above and behind.” This fits with the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald fatally shot the president from the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository.

View From Texas Book Depository

Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesThe view from the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository.

However, one conspiracy theory claims that Kennedy’s brain indicates the opposite — that Kennedy was shot from the front, thus bolstering the “grassy knoll” theory. In fact, that’s the conclusion reached by doctors at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. According to believers of this theory, it’s why JFK’s brain was stolen.

But Swanson has a different idea. Though he agrees the brain was likely stolen, he thinks it was taken but by none other than Kennedy’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy.

“My conclusion is that Robert Kennedy did take his brother’s brain,” Swanson wrote in his book.

“Not to conceal evidence of a conspiracy but perhaps to conceal evidence of the true extent of President Kennedy’s illnesses, or perhaps to conceal evidence of the number of medications that President Kennedy was taking.”

Indeed, the president had numerous health problems which he’d kept from the public. He also took a number of medications, including painkillers, antianxiety agents, stimulants, sleeping pills, and hormones for his dangerous lack of adrenal function.

Ultimately, whether or not JFK’s brain was stolen is one thing. But there’s also something strange about archive photos of the president’s brain.

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Is That JFK’s Brain In Official Photos?

In 1998, a report from the Assassinations Records Review Board raised a troubling question. They contended that photographs of JFK’s brain actually featured the wrong organ.

“I am 90 to 95 percent certain that the photographs in the Archives are not of President Kennedy’s brain,” said Douglas Horne, the board’s chief analyst for military records.

He added, “If they aren’t, that can mean only one thing — that there has been a coverup of the medical evidence.”

O’Neill — the FBI agent present at Kennedy’s assassination — also said that official photos of the brain didn’t match what he had witnessed. “This looks almost like a complete brain,” he said, altogether different than the destroyed brain he had seen.

The report also found numerous discrepancies about who had examined the brain when, whether or not the brain was sectioned a certain way, and what kind of photos were taken.

In the end, the story of JFK’s brain seems as mysterious as many aspects of his assassination. Was it stolen? Lost? Replaced? To date, no one knows.

But the American public may get more answers about the Kennedy assassination soon. Though further disclosure of the Kennedy files was delayed this year, more are set to be released in December 2022.

After reading about the mystery of JFK’s brain, read about how Albert Einstein’s brain was stolen. Or, look through these haunting and rare photos from the JFK assassination.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "The Baffling Mystery Of What Happened To John F. Kennedy’s Brain.", January 13, 2022, Accessed June 25, 2024.