This essay is one of a series of “Participant Observations” on the removal of the Samuel Morton Cranial Collection from public display and legacies of scientific racism in museums. Read more reflections from this series here.

In the summer of 2011, I made my one and only visit to the Morton skull collection. While it seemed absurd that Morton could speak so categorically about something so transparently false, standing among those skulls was provocative. There, whether imagined or real, I began to feel how the possession, collection, and storage of thousands of dead individuals must have been empowering. Not just defined by Morton, craniometry combined with anatomists’ sense of authority over corpses shaped the future of both physical anthropology and anatomical training.[1]

Undoubtedly, relocating the Morton skull collection is genuine progress in an effort to alleviate the suffering caused by the mass theft of human remains, but this must be the beginning of a broader conversation. Whether in the nineteenth century or in the present, Morton and his skull collection have often dominated conversations about race science, medicine, and human remains in the United States. Morton’s collection was the largest, but it was only one of many skull collections in the United States, many of which were also a part of medical museums. Understanding Morton’s legacy, then, also requires an interrogation of how craniometry influenced medical education.

Around the time of my 2011 visit, I began to ask a question that has shaped my research since: did Morton’s racial science affect his role as a medical professor at the Pennsylvania Medical College and preceptor to multiple students at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School? Moreover, was Morton’s dual position as anatomist and ethnologist a part of a larger professional overlap that implicated medical education in the longstanding damage caused by scientific racism? In the ten years since, multiple scholars (myself as well as brilliant students in the Penn & Slavery Project, included) have answered with a resounding “yes.” For example, on November 1, 1842, at the Pennsylvania Medical College, Morton devoted an entire introductory lecture to anatomy and racial difference. Likewise, in his anatomy textbook meant for medical students, Morton included craniometry, and he also ranked each race according to facial angles. Aspects of antebellum racial science continue to be repeated today (often unknowingly), and scholars have found close links between anatomical and therapeutic racism. Thus, Morton and other early race scientists certainly hold some responsibility for present day health inequalities.[2]

Collecting human remains did not end with Morton, and ultimately other skull collections would dwarf Morton’s “American Golgotha.” Just on January 27, 2021, Harvard University announced the formation of a “Steering Committee on Human Remains in Harvard Museum Collections.” According to their statement, Harvard owns the remains of more than 22,000 individuals. Likewise, Tamara Lanier is currently suing Harvard for the possession of daguerreotypes of her enslaved ancestors by the racial scientist, Louis Agassiz. Agassiz was faculty at Harvard, and these photos were meant to prove Black inferiority. These photographs, combined with the theft of many artifacts taken in colonial endeavors, remind us that collectors were trading in other sensitive or valuable objects as well as the bodies of colonized and enslaved peoples.

Even in the twentieth century, universities have not always given human remains the dignity of being stored in the climate-controlled sanctuary of the museum. From 1949 to 1973, my alma mater, Tulane University, stored the remains of two ancient Egyptian mummies under the bleachers of the old football stadium. Since then, researchers have uncovered that the mummies were donated to the medical school’s museum in the 1850s by George R. Gliddon. Gliddon was a skull collector on Morton’s behalf in the Indian Ocean World and an ethnologist himself. Gliddon must have donated the bodies after he was publicly humiliated during a theatrical unwrapping in Boston, where he misgendered a mummy due to a faulty translation. (This episode was parodied in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1845 short story, “Some Words with a Mummy.”)

Skull collecting and the theft of human remains by Morton and faculty at schools like Harvard and Tulane were widespread and systemic throughout much of the nineteenth century. Quantifying the number of graves disturbed and wealth robbed is likely impossible, but still, it is incumbent on universities and their faculty to take the lead on attempting to right these wrongs. Moreover, reckoning must go beyond relocation. We must also grapple with the racial ideas that skull collections engender and cultures of inequality that they shape, whether in access to higher education or adequate healthcare. The relocation of the Morton skull collection, then, should be the beginning rather than the end of any discussion about skull collecting, medical racism, and their effects on contemporary Americans.


[1] Michael Sappol, A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

[2] Kelly M. Hoffman, Sophie Trawalter, Jordan R. Axt, and M. Norman Oliver, “Racial Bias in Pain Assessment and Treatment Recommendations, and False Beliefs about Biological Differences between Blacks and Whites,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 113, no. 16 (April 2016), 4296-4301.

Christopher D.E. Willoughby: contributions / website /