The Harvard Brain Bank Disaster: Remote Temperature Monitoring vs Temperature Alarming Explored

This past June, you might have caught the story of the brain bank disaster that occurred at the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital where a freezer failure lead to a loss of 1/3 of the world’s largest collection of autism brain samples.  To describe the severity of the disaster, here’s a few quotes from the above-linked Boston.com article:

“This was a priceless collection,’’ said Dr. Francine Benes, director of the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, where the brains were housed. “You can’t express its value in dollar amounts,’’ said Benes, who is leading one of two internal investigations into the freezer failure.

The damage to these brains could slow autism research by a decade as the collection is restored, said Carlos Pardo, a neuropathologist and associate professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University.

This is a major tragedy.  Here’s what happened (as reported by the Boston Globe):

The McLean freezer, one of 24 in the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, was protected by two separate alarm systems, and staff checked an external thermostat twice a day to ensure that the tissue samples were maintained at about minus-80 degrees Celsius. But on May 31, center Assistant Director George Tejada opened so-called Freezer U and wasn’t greeted by the expected blast of cold air. Though the alarms had not been triggered and the external thermostat read minus-79, the actual temperature was 7 degrees, roughly equivalent to a refrigerator. Based on the condition of the brains, Benes estimates the freezer had turned off three days earlier.

Benes said the situation is so unusual – the perfect storm of alarm and thermostat failure and the concentration of samples – that she cannot rule out foul play.

This disaster exposes the vulnerability of regular temperature alarms and thermostats: how do you know they’re working? We discussed this further in our post on the 4 types of temperature monitoring systems.

This is where remote temperature monitoring–particularly web-based, realtime temperature monitoring like FreshTemp’s FreshSense system–trumps traditional alarm systems.  A web-based, remote temperature monitoring system can diagnose itself.  If McLean had installed a system like this, they would’ve known about the issue immediately.  To explain how this would’ve worked, I’ll use FreshSense to illustrate the point, since that’s the monitoring system I know best:

The FreshSense Sensors send temperature data readings every minute back to the FreshTemp Online Dashboard.  This means the Dashboard is constantly listening and expecting to have this data coming in.  However, if for whatever reason (such as foul play or hardware malfunction), the Sensors were to fail and stop sending data, the Dashboard would start to get nervous.  And if it’s too long (depending on the configuration), the Dashboard knows there’s a problem.  In the case of McLean, they didn’t catch the freezer failure for approximately 3 days.  With FreshSense, they could’ve known in less than 15 minutes if there was a problem.

For me personally, this incident is extremely sad and a reminder that what FreshTemp does is important.