Harry Nelson Pillsbury (1872-1906) was one of the strongest chess players in the world and known for his blindfold chess play and mental feats of memorization. He suffered from tertiary syphilis which may have led to mental illness. Before he died at the age of 33, psychologists were studying Pillsbury’s brain and his mental powers. After he died, his brain was actually studied.
How good was Pillsbury’s memory? One day in London in 1896, Pillsbury was approached by two professors (Dr. H. Threlkheld-Edwards and professor Mansfiled Merriman) just before Pillsbury was to play 20 chess players blindfolded. They had a list of words or phrases designed to test his memory. The list consisted of the following: antiphlogistine, periosteum, takadiastase, Plasmon, amborisa, Threlkeld, strepoccus, straphyloccus, microccus, plasmodium, Mississippi, Freiheit, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, athletics, no war, Etchenberg, American, Russian, philosophy, Piet Potgelter’s Rost, Salamagundi, Domisellecootsi, Bangmanvate, Schlechter’s Neck, Manzinyama, theosophy, catechism, Madjesoomalops.
Pillsbury took the list, quickly studied the words and passed the list back. Then he recited the whole list to the two professors. Then he recited the whole list backwards.
The next day, the professors asked him if he could remember the list. Pillsbury was able to repeat the list again, forward or backward.
In 1906, Emanual Lasker wrote the following about Pillsbury’s brain and death in the New York Times:
“Pillsbury, the American chess champion, died last Sunday (June 17, 1906). The cause of his premature departure was a stroke of apoplexy. The mechanism of his brain had become defective. With the examples of Morphy and Steinitz in their minds, many writers have commented on the tendency of famous chess players to insanity. A general belief has consequently been engendered that chess playing, or any very intensive purely mental occupation disorganizes the intellect. But this belief is entirely unfounded. It is in the highest degree mischievous.
Physiologically it is clear why the man who cares most for the development of his physique and the senses should suffer. He puts a load on the heart that the brain is not allowed to share. Thus both organs deteriorate, the one from overexertion, the other one from lack of use.
The man whose critical faculty is developed will never strain any more of his organs beyond the power of endurance. The uncritical mind, in the quest for pleasure, often oversteps this limit. Happiness is entirely a state of mind.
Chess has an important function to fulfill. Opportunities for enjoying works of art or for studying scientific books are afforded in plenty. But the spirit of fight – calling into being so many faculties of man – in modern society rarely finds occasion for manifestation and practice. The ancient game of chess fills out this gap. While the two armies of 16 pieces each contend with each other in mimic warfare according to acknowledged rules, the brain of the player is in constant agitation. Here he must foresee the result of a hostile maneuver, analyzing its outcome sharply to find out whether it is time for defense or whether he should make his opponent press him still harder before he parries.
Chess requires courage thus to expose one’s self to the certainty of danger, yet his strategic convictions tell him that the offered sacrifice is unsound, that if he only finds the right replies he should win. But he anxiously asks himself whether he is not mistaken. His moral courage struggles in him. The struggle on the board has a counterpoint in the soul of the man.
A long series of such experiences must develop in the chess player certain portions of his mind that, unless circumstances are very favorable, are usually dwarfed. A belief in the logic of events, not alone in the chessboard, must take hold of him.
For these and many other reasons it cannot be doubted that the brain considerably gains in force by the practice of chess play. And therefore, according to our thesis, we must conclude that in modern society the ideal man would be a chess player.
But here I hear some interpose, What about Morphy, Steinitz, and Pillsbury, the three greatest American chess players, having fallen victims to insanity? Does not observation disprove your theory? So they may ask. My reply is a decided No!.
Morphy did not go insane on account of chess. During the last 30 years of his life he never touched the pieces, nor did he show any signs of insanity except perhaps 10 years before his death. Is it likely that the troubles should have arisen from chess playing, which he by no means played excessively, or is it not rather more probable that something else, such as war unfavorable to his side, or another ailment somehow contracted, was the cause?
Steinitz went insane in spite of chess. Modern science has located the various mental faculties in the brain, and so it has been found that Steinitz was born with a defect in his motional brain cells. The part of the brain where chesswork was performed was, on the contrary, strong and sound. The blood supply of the weaker part became irregular, and there was a hemorrhage, a catastrophe, that would have occurred much earlier (Steinitz was 62 years old when he died) had he not strengthened his brain by the use of his other faculties.
Pillsbury’s case is different. He died from an illness, contracted through overexertion of his memory cells. But chess has only very indirectly to do with that. Memory has the least value for a chess player who in its stead has to make use of invention, original thinking, and logic. Only in blindfold chess does memory find a place. Unfortunately Pillsbury made it his business to give blindfolded performances. The chess clubs made him play as many games as he possible could stand. During the trying hours of his exhibitions, in which he often gave also feats of memory and played checkers and whist, Pillsbury would smoke and partake of whisky. Thus little by little his health was undermined. Many friends, seeing him lose in strength, warned him of the peril. But the chess world is wretchedly organized, and much as it owed to Pillsbury it never allowed him a living except on condition that he gave his exhibitions. So the vicious circle was complete, and now we stand mourning at his grave.”
In the early part of the 20th century, Dr. Elmer Southard (1876-1920), Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, and a strong chess himself, studied Pillsbury’s brain. Dr. Southard studied the brain of Pillsbury in an attempt to decide whether a genius for chess tends to deteriorate the mind. He found no difference between a chess player’s brain and anyone else’s brain.