Old Skulls

From the cover of Anne Fabian's "The Skull Collectors"

Monday night Rutgers professor Ann Fabian spoke at Observatory about the research behind her new book, The Skull Collectors.  It tells the story of one of America’s most infamous collections of skulls, that of Philadelphia naturalist Samuel George Morton in the early 1800’s.

People have called Morton “the father of scientific racism”.  He published measurements from his skull collection arguing that the skulls of white people had larger brain capacities than other skulls.  Fabian takes a pretty controversial stance in defending Morton against that reputation.  Really, she insists, he was a good guy.  His cranial capacity measurements were just ignorantly going along with the popular medical research practices of the time.

I enjoyed how she discussed the implications of owning parts of someone’s body after they died.  Apparently having your brain preserved for science has long been considered an honor, while the preservation of your skull was a debasing insult.  The idea of voluntarily donating your body to science is a fairly recent one.  The medical profession has a long and ugly history of getting their bodies from less than legitimate sources like robbed graves and prisons (if you haven’t already check out Stiff by Mary Roach).  In fact, Fabian calls the Civil War a godsend for doctors because it solved “the problem of collecting white skulls.”  For me, the human remains at the Bodies exhibit immediately raised an ethical flag.  But I hadn’t thought before about the moral implications of seeing skeletons and skulls on exhibit.  Where do you draw the line between using someone’s body for “the good of science” and dishonoring the person once within that body?

My recording of Ann Fabian’s talk should be up on the Observatory website soon.