Human Remainders: The Lost Century of the Samuel George Morton Collection

Paul Wolff Mitchell

Paul Wolff Mitchell is the 2018-2019 Keith S. Thomson Research Fellow and a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.


My dissertation concerns the collection of human skulls in anthropological debates about the nature and social implications of racial difference in the late 18th and early-mid 19th century, and the broader political impact and scientific legacies of craniology, or, as I prefer, cranial race science. For generations, and for good reason, historians of science have given significant critical attention to the intimate relation forged between the scientific idea of race and the form of the skull. A simplified summary of the consensus narrative might run as follows:

By the last decades of the eighteenth century, with the rise of comparative anatomy, the skull had become the privileged site for reading embodied racial difference. Tens of thousands of human bodies suffered (usually) posthumous decapitation in the service of supplying natural history cabinets in European, and later in American, metropoles with exemplars of the racial categories populating proliferating anthropological taxonomies. Throughout the nineteenth century, cranial collections multiplied and became growing, lively sites of scientific knowledge production, crucial in stimulating the disciplinary formation of physical anthropology and in entrenching and elaborating concepts and classifications of racial difference. Notably, these classificatory systems were often hotly debated and notoriously unstable, prompting the publication of numbingly complex batteries of measurements in the attempt to consistently wring unambiguous racial categories out of bone. By the middle of the twentieth century, both the skull as prized scientific object and the typological, morphological concept of race long associated with cranial race science had lost favor among anthropologists and biologists interested in recast questions of “ethnic differences” or “human population variation and adaptation.” Molecular techniques and the translation of evolutionary change into genetic language had sunk the prestige of anatomical studies, casting dusty, macabre craniology as a quintessentially outmoded science and dissolving any impetus to continue the collection of human heads in answering questions about race, in whatever terms they may be posed.

My dissertation aims to complicate and extend some aspects of this narrative, particularly through an attention to the materiality of the skull as a scientific object and the diversity of craniological scientific practices, the complex and contradictory social and political motivations of cranial collectors and craniologists, and the specificity of national and institutional contexts in the formation of cranial race science. This line of inquiry leads to the archival traces of grave-robbing abolitionists, the reconstruction of 19th-century drawing devices used to illustrate skulls for craniological publications, and hundreds of hours spent in the company of thousands of only metaphorically faceless human remains in the basements, classrooms, laboratories, and exhibition vitrines of European and American museums and universities.

In the spring of 2019, the Keith S. Thomson Research Fellowship from the CHSTM allowed me to follow one key line of inquiry in my dissertation work: What becomes of cranial collections after the decline of cranial race science? In recent years, calls for repatriation of human remains from descendant communities have increased just as techniques for the digital imaging of morphology through CT scanning and the analysis of DNA from long-dead bone have been developed, potentially re-positioning historic cranial collections as valuable sources of scientific data at the same time that movements to redress of the violence and exploitation inherent in the amassing of such collections are underway. Moreover, particularly in Europe, some cranial collections have been explicitly positioned as historically and culturally valuable collections of scientific heritage, constituting a distinct line of argument for their retention against calls for repatriation.

As sketched above, these same collections were well out of focused political and scientific interest for decades. However, I have come to find through my CHSTM-supported research that cranial collections remained much more animated, both scientifically and institutionally, through the 20th century than the standard narrative would suggest. I also found that context-specific factors as general as the impacts of the American Civil War and the Holocaust on the formation of anthropology, or as specific as the political orientation or personal connections of a major patron to a scientific society or museum curator can have decisive impacts on how cranial collections are positioned, used, and valued among the scientists that study them and the institutions which curate them. The particularity of each case and context suggests that there probably is not a universal story to be told about the fates of historic cranial collections, but comparing representative cases provides a framework for the relevant factors in interpreting the past, and perhaps in imaging the future, of these fraught icons in the history of racial science.

Specifically, the support I received from CHSTM was used to study the history of the “Morton cranial collection,” a collection of about 1500 human skulls acquired by the Philadelphia physician, natural historian, and anatomist Samuel George Morton (1799-1851) and his successor, James Aitken Meigs (1829-1879), at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (ANSP). This research complements my comparative studies of the history of cranial collections in the Netherlands and Germany.

Morton’s collection is of particular interest for a few reasons: It was renowned in Morton’s life as the largest cranial collection in the world. Morton’s publications based on his collection, particularly his Crania Americana (1839) and Crania Aegyptiaca (1844) were influential in spawning a genre of craniological works throughout the following decades, explicitly using his books as templates. Morton was among the first to measure the size of the brain by volume, using the cranial cavity as a proxy, and used his measures to make what is often cited as among the first “empirical” claims for Caucasian racial superiority on the basis of large samples in a comparative anatomical context.  In 1918, with the founding of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology and the formation of the disciplinary association which defines the modern field of physical anthropology (now rechristened “biological anthropology”) in the United States, Aleš Hrdlička named Morton as the first physical anthropologist in the USA.[1] In 1966, 115 years after Morton’s death, the collection was transferred from the ANSP to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum).

Archives relevant to Morton’s collection are housed at the archives of the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Countway Library for the History of Medicine of Harvard University, the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives in Washington, D.C., the library of the College of Physicians in Philadelphia, the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, the archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia, and the Library Company of Philadelphia. (A few letters and other documents relating to Morton are also to be found at Princeton University.) CHSTM’s support allowed me to acquaint myself with materials relating to Morton and the broader history of craniology at each of these institutions.

At the Smithsonian, I searched in the archives of Carleton Coon (1904-1981), Penn anthropologist in the 1940s-1960s. Coon’s 1962 publication The Origin of Races established him as among the last public adherents within mainstream physical anthropology to a typological view of racial difference. Although Coon resigned from active teaching at Penn in 1963 following controversy over his regressive claims about race made in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, he remained affiliated with the Penn Museum as a curator emeritus, and I had suspected that Coon had something to do with the transfer of the Morton collection to the Penn Museum in 1966. Although Coon’s archives reveal rather a lot about the changing scientific status of craniology and the typological race concept in the middle of the twentieth century, I discovered that my theory about the transfer of the Morton collection was wrong.

At the Penn Museum, I found documents relating to the transfer of the Morton collection from the Academy of Natural Sciences to the Penn Museum. The collection was transferred as a permanent loan from the Academy of Natural Sciences in 1966 to the Penn Museum, then gifted to the Penn Museum in the 1990s, with the codification of the North American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), stipulating the repatriation of human remains of ancestors of federally recognized Native American tribes. I found that Wilton Krogman (1903-1987), Penn professor with appointments in the anthropology department as well as Penn’s medical and dental schools, widely recognized as the formulator of modern forensic anthropology, was the force behind the transfer of the Morton collection from the ANSP to Penn in the 1960s. His graduate student, later Penn professor Frank Johnston, oversaw the delivery of the crania to Penn in the summer of 1966. I found documents relating to the finances for housing the new collection at Penn, as well as plans for an apparently uninitiated study by Krogman on growth and population variation, which was stated as the proximate reason given by Krogman to the Penn Museum director, Frohlich Rainey (1907-1992), for the acquisition of the collection. (Consultation of Krogman’s archives at Penn, with the assistance of archivist Alex Pezzati, suggest that Krogman never worked with the Morton collection in a research context, although there is evidence that he used the collection in lectures.) Curiously, no mention of the acquisition of the collection was made in the Penn Museum’s board minutes from the period.

The ANS of Drexel University archives showed that the transfer of the Morton collection to Penn in 1966 was shielded from public view. The transfer seems to have been ratified by ANSP director H. Radclyffe Roberts (1906-1982) without mention in the ANSP’s board minutes, or mention in the ANSP’s public magazine, Frontiers. (Notably, the year before the transfer, the same magazine featured a story on the Morton collection.) Newspaper accounts from the period suggest that the Morton collection was largely considered a historical curiosity irrelevant to the ANSP’s research agenda. Moreover, space was at a premium in the ANSP, and the Morton collection was conceived as so much dead weight. A longer view of the Morton collection at the ANSP shows that the collection had been somewhat controversial at least for a century before the transfer. In particular, ANSP president Joseph Leidy (1823-1891) appears to have been decisive in demoting “ethnological” research on crania from the forefront of the ANSP’s research agenda. Leidy’s tense relationship with Morton has already been noted by historians, and I have traced additional signs of their antipathy in Leidy’s archives at the ANSP, as well as those in the library of the College of Physicians.[2] Leidy’s personal animus toward Morton early in his career, his own views on questions of race and racial science, the changing standards of physical anthropology, shifting institutional priorities, and the political context of American physical anthropology in the decades following the Civil War are all relevant factors in decoding the stagnation of the Morton cranial collection and the closure of the Ethnology section at the ANSP in the waning years of the 19th century, when the collection ended continuing accessions and research publications produced from it.

At the Countway Library at Harvard, assisted by curator Dominic Hall, I documented casts from Morton’s collection which he sent to John Collins Warren (1778-1856), fellow craniologist and anatomy professor at Harvard Medical School. (While I was in Boston, I was able to also spend some time at the Massachusetts Historical Society, where the John Collins Warren papers are housed.) Morton created plaster casts of certain exemplary or representative skulls in his collection and sent them to other collectors, just as casts or originals from other collectors were sent to him. The casts sent to Warren are some of the few surviving casts from Morton’s collection today. In comparing these casts to the crania in Morton’s collection, I was able to identify exactly which crania had been cast and sent to Morton’s colleagues. Interestingly, Morton appears to have chosen a female skull from Frankfurt, Germany (No. 102), as the exemplar for the Caucasian type. The physical entanglement of Morton’s collection with that of other cranial collections across the globe through the scientific trade networks of both skull and casts that characterized 19th century craniology traces histories implicating vastly remote colonial and imperial projects with each other: Morton sent Comanche and Peruvian crania to Swedish craniologist Anders Retzius (1796-1860) in exchange for Lapps and Finns.

The American Philosophical Society and Library Company of Philadelphia hold Morton’s incoming correspondence, over 1300 letters in total. These letters document Morton’s associations with collectors and the provenance of many of the skulls in his collection. The richness of this source for my dissertation work is inestimable, but one example suffices to demonstrate the stories that these letters connect with the crania in the collection and their afterlives.

The ANSP archives include a series of photos taken of a handful of crania from Morton’s collection, from the year 1894, according to dates stamped on their backs. Why the pictures were taken remains unclear. Some are frontal views of a single cranium, others show two crania compared side-by-side. Only one photograph includes another species: No. 1327, an Australian Aborigine, is posed next to a male gorilla skull. In 1849, Morton, in the third edition of his Catalogue of Skulls, reported that the skull belonged to a man named “Durabub,” and described the skull as the “nearest approach to the Orang type” that he had seen.[3] Morton does attribute the skull to a collector in his published works, but reference to the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences and Morton’s correspondence reveals the collector to have been Dr. Charles Huffnagle, the first United States Consul to Calcutta, India.[4] The comparison of Durabub and the gorilla in the 1894 photo was likely a reference to Thomas Henry Huxley’s 1863 Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature, in which Huxley suggests the plausibility of human relation with the apes by noting that the difference between the brain size of a European and an Australian Aborigine, according to Morton’s measurements, is greater than the difference between the latter and the gorilla. Huxley includes an image comparing an Australian Aborigine’s cranium to primates.[5] The clues in Huffnagle’s correspondence provide the basis for retracing the path that brought Durabub’s remains from South Australia to Calcutta and then to Philadelphia, and from there into print and wider circulation in the interwoven discourses around race, species, and evolution in the late 19th century.

The chance to pull together the pieces of this and other stories has been crucial to the broader comparative project I am pursuing in my dissertation. I am grateful to the CHSTM for its generous support in enriching my interdisciplinary project at the borderlands of anthropology and the history of science. In these archives I have found a new lens on the lives of Morton’s and other human remains collections and the political and scientific currents in which they have long been animated.

[1] Aleš Hrdlička (1918) “Physical Anthropology, Its Scope and Aims.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 1(2): 133–182.

[2] L. Warren (1998) Joseph Leidy: the Last Man Who Knew Everything. New Haven: Yale University Press; R. Peck and P. Stroud (2012) A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadephia and the Making of American Science. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

[3] S.G. Morton (1849) Catalogue of Skulls of Man and the Inferior Animals. Philadelphia: Merridew & Thompson.

[4] Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, v. 3 (1846-1847), p. 146.

[5] T.H. Huxley (1863) Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature. New York: Appleton and Company, p. 79.