The horrible ghouls of 20th century anthropology

This is a photo of Mary Sara, an 18 year old Sami woman who traveled to Seattle in 1933, accompanying her mother, who was getting cataract surgery. While there, Mary died of tuberculosis, which is tragedy enough…but then the ghouls arrived.

The Smithsonian wanted her brain.

The young woman — whose family was Sami, or indigenous to areas that include northern Scandinavia — had traveled with her mother by ship from her Alaska hometown at the invitation of physician Charles Firestone, who had offered to treat the older woman for cataracts. Now, Firestone sought to take advantage of Sara’s death for a “racial brain collection” at the Smithsonian Institution. He contacted a museum official in May 1933 by telegram.

Ales Hrdlicka, the 64-year-old curator of the division of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian’s U.S. National Museum, was interested in Sara’s brain for his collection. But only if she was “full-blood,” he noted, using a racist term to question whether her parents were both Sami.

The Smithsonian houses over 30,000 body parts, including hundreds of brains.

Nearly 100 years later, Sara’s brain is still housed by the institution, wrapped in muslin and immersed in preservatives in a large metal container. It is stored in a museum facility in Maryland with 254 other brains, amassed mostly in the first half of the 20th century. Almost all of them were gathered at the behest of Hrdlicka, a prominent anthropologist who believed that White people were superior and collected body parts to further now-debunked theories about anatomical differences between races.

There they sit to this day, gathered by Ales Hrdlicka, who somehow became a curator at the Smithsonian and a prominent defender of racist pseudoscience.

Hrdlicka, who was born in what is now the Czech Republic, received medical training from the Eclectic Medical College of New York City and the New York Homeopathic Medical College in Manhattan before moving into the field of anthropology. He was seen as one of the country’s foremost authorities on race, sought by the government and members of the public to prove that people’s race determined physical characteristics and intelligence.

He was also a longtime member of the American Eugenics Society, an organization dedicated to racist practices designed to control human populations and “improve” the genetic pool, baseless theories that would be widely condemned after the Nazis used them to justify genocide and forced sterilization during the Holocaust. In speeches and personal correspondence, he spoke openly about his belief in the superiority of White people, once lamenting that Black people were “the real problem before the American people.”

“There are differences of importance between the brains of the negro and European, to the general disadvantage of the former,” he wrote in a 1926 letter to a University of Vermont professor. “Brains of individual negroes may come up to or near the standard of some individual whites; but such primitive brains as found in some negroes … would be hard to duplicate in normal whites.”

That is truly remarkable. The article focuses on the abuse of autonomy of so many people who had their brains scooped out and sent off to Washington DC, and that is definitely an important issue. But I was reading it and asking myself, “What science was done? What did we learn? What did he discover to justify calling the brains of black people ‘primitive’?” It turns out to have been nothing.

The extent of Hrdlicka’s own research on the brains is unclear. When a professor wrote to him and asked about the differences he found between the brains of people of different races, he replied that research studies showed the superiority of White brains, without citing any studies of his own. He published a 1906 study on brain preservatives, recording the weight of human and animal brains and comparing how they fared in a chemical solution. But The Post found no other research on the brains by Hrdlicka.

I know a bit about neuroscience, and I find the whole approach unproductive and baffling. Sure, you could do crude measurements, weighing brains and slicing them open to measure the gross morphology of regions and nuclei…but we know that all of that is so variable and often so irrelevant to the functioning of those brains that you can’t learn anything from it. We simply don’t know enough about the details of how brains work that, aside from major abnormalities, you can’t conclude anything about the minds housed in those lumps of meat by hacking them up, and you especially couldn’t do anything with the information in the early 20th century.

Basically, Hrdlicka was nothing but an obsessive and rather morbid collector. His ‘credibility’, what there was of it, rested entirely on accumulating the largest collection of brains, like bloody tragic Pokemon. He didn’t have to think. He didn’t have to study. He was just gathering gory fragments of human beings and parading them before other bad scientists who thought this was an accomplishment. The Smithsonian should be ashamed, we should all be ashamed that this charade of race ‘science’ was perpetrated for so long, and that people continue to think this was a useful approach to justify their bigotry to this day.

Hrdlicka really was a ghoul. When an exhibit of Filipino culture, represented by a large number of people from that country, was held at the World’s Fair, he had one thing on his mind: “That summer, Hrdlicka headed to St. Louis, hoping to take brains from Filipinos who died.” He collected four brains from the unfortunate people who died incidentally there (tuberculosis and pneumonia were Hrdlicka’s friends).

Ugh. The Smithsonian, and other museums around the country, need to address this ugly stain on their history, and make amends to the people they exploited for such stupid ends.


  1. doctorworm says

    This is reminiscent of Dr. Mengele. Not only is it a gross and racist abomination, nothing of value even to gross racists ever actually came of it.

  2. lumipuna says

    In the late 19th and early 20th century, Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian scholars were sometimes given official license to dig up skeletal remains from recently used (Christian, no less) graveyards in the Sámi communities of far north. Just last summer, there was a much publicized repatriation/reburial of a number of anonymous remains in three regions in northern Finland. I hear a similar repatriation is currently being planned in Norway.

  3. says

    This is weird. All Czech sources that I can find on Google on Aleš Hrdlička state that he was against racism and that his works were banned in The Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia during WW2 because of this. Sometimes he is even venerated. This shows that it was much more complicated and that he was actually pretty horrible.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    Hrdlička was convinced of the superiority of the white race and obsessed with racial identity. Shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack he’d written to Roosevelt expressing the view that the “less developed skulls” of Japanese were proof that they were innately warlike and had a lower level of evolutionary development than other races. The president wrote back asking whether the “Japanese problem” could be solved through mass interbreeding.

  5. says

    Does anyone at the Smithsonian have any reason to keep any of these body-parts any longer? Any plans to actually do any sort of research or experimentation on them? Does anyone even think anything meaningful could be done after all this time? If not…repatriate the lot of them already. AT BEST they’re nothing but a waste of storage space.

  6. seversky says

    I suppose you could argue that, from a pragmatic perspective, the dead no longer need their brain so what happens after is of no consequence.

    Unless. of course, a consequence is the furtherance of a deeply objectionable and unscientific racism. In that case, where possible, the organs should be returned to their families if possible for proper interment or cremation, unless the families agree to their being retained in the collection.

  7. says

    seversky: there should also be some explicit essay or statement admitting that — as appears to be the case here — absolutely no useful work of any kind was ever done on/with the organs, and that the person who took and kept them, allegedly for scientific research, never actually did anything of the sort. In fact, it appears he kept them only for the purpose of PRETENDING he was using them or going to use them to prove his racist beliefs, any decade now, so don’t try to debunk anything he says, ‘cuz he’s got all the specimens and you’ll all be eating your words!

  8. khms says

    #5 @Charly:

    This is weird. All Czech sources that I can find on Google on Aleš Hrdlička state that he was against racism and that his works were banned in The Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia during WW2 because of this. Sometimes he is even venerated. This shows that it was much more complicated and that he was actually pretty horrible.

    You know, he was born Alois Ferdinand Hrdlička (changed his name to Aleš because of the war), and married to two German-American women. And his father was Maximilian Hrdlička. Guessing wildly here, but I suspect he spoke better German than Czech.

    There’s a certain parallel to my own family. My mother’s family was from the Sudeten area (and spent at least some time living in Prague), with a Czech last name (that I’m not trying to spell as they changed it after the war to a boring German one) but part of the German minority. And my uncle actually taught in the US as well for a while (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, University of Hawaii, University of Miami, NOAA/AOML, Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena) though he’s now retired in Kiel, Germany.

  9. says

    @khms, that is really wild guessing, since the names Alois, Ferdinand, and Maximilian are perfectly normal Czech names in those times, albeit I know no Alois or Ferdinand alive today, and only one Maximilian (but all three are still used and there are thousands of men with these first names in Cz).

    Hrdlička was born in Humpolec, which is not part of Sudettenland. There is a museum in Humpolec and their website has his biography on their website -click-. Allegedly he changed his name to “Aleš” because that is how he was addressed by his schoolmates and parents when they were living in Czechoslovakia. Most Czechs are called with some shorthand of their name, so that is plausible. So the change might have been just him wanting to be called this in the USA too, for sentimental reasons.

    Curiously, the biography mentions that he was staunchly anti-racism and as I said, I cannot find any detailed Czech sources saying otherwise. But from what I was able to gather on cursory search, he was against anti-slavic racism, not against all of it. So the museum site appears to be whitewashing his legacy.

  10. StevoR says

    This sorta horror also happened in Oz with our First Peoples – especially their skulls.

    See :

    Kanabygal’s skull was among the remains of 725 Aboriginal people held here. Many, like Kanabygal, were victims of frontier violence between tribesmen – defending traditional lands on the pastoral frontier – and colonial troops, paramilitary police forces, settler militia and raiding parties. Their bodies were cut up for parts that became sought-after antiquities in colonial homesteads across Australia and in cultural, medical and educational institutions across the US, Britain and continental Europe.


    The government estimates that the remains of as many as 900 Indigenous Australians are still held in institutions in the UK, Germany, France, the US and elsewhere.

    Some of the other remains held in the boxes at Mitchell (which I’m not permitted, out of deference to the dead, to open) belong to Indigenous Australians who died in colonial institutions – jails, hospitals and asylums – and, scarcely cold, were “anatomised” (a benign euphemism for butchery). Thousands more, who might have died naturally and remained buried, were exhumed en masse.

    The collection of bodies at Mitchell is central to a shameful, bleak, little-known narrative that begins at colonisation and reverberates through Australia’s unsettled national sovereignty. It extends discomfortingly into the 20th century, and resonates today as an element of ongoing trauma in Aboriginal communities.

    Most notoriously including Indigenous – Noongar – Warrior Yagan ( see :

    Stuff the British Stole segment – the body parts of thsoe they murdered included – 3 min 15 secs approx.

  11. StevoR says

    ^ Damn. Well, that first link ain’t working..Fixed here :


    Also this under 5 mins long segment from same show as hypertexted above

    Yet so much still to address and recover and do the right thing by all the way back to and including Pemulwuy’s missing remains fromthe very start of Indigenous resistance to European colonisation – see: