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 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.