The Samuel George Morton Cranial Collection


Hidden amongst the arsenic tanned skins of America’s oldest natural history institution, the yellowed parchments of the country’s first learned society, and the bone and mummy filled shelves of one of the oldest universities in the nation, lie the scattered remains of what was once the most renowned and principal collection of crania in the world: The Samuel George Morton Cranial Collection.

A naturalist, anatomist, physician and ethnologist, Dr. Samuel George Morton began his collection in Philadelphia in 1830. His own account states: “I chose for my subject the different forms of the skull as exhibited in the five races of men. Strange to say, I could neither buy nor borrow a cranium of each of these races… Forcibly impressed with this great deficiency in a most important branch of science, I at once resolved to make a collection for myself.”

Morton, at once, set upon his quest to procure as many skulls of man, beast, and bird he could find, forming a “full cabinet of universal Craniology, Human and Comparative”. Twenty-one years later, upon his death in 1851, he had amassed a collection of nearly two thousand crania, comprised of over one thousand human, three hundred mammal, eighty reptile and fish, and over three hundred bird skulls. Morton’s human specimens were retrieved from across the globe; procured from battlefields, Egyptian tombs, almshouses, Indian mounds, and dissection tables. His equally vast collection of animal skulls included some of the first of their species ever discovered. Combined, they represented the first and most comprehensive cranial collection of its kind in the United States. To Morton’s friends and colleagues, his study had become a “place of the skull,” making him world famous and earning his cabinet of crania the nickname, “The American Golgotha.”

Morton’s scientific work focused on several anthropological theories. He was one of the first American scientists to use anthropometric data in his studies, utilizing the measurement of internal cranial capacity (the inside of the skull) to forge a new and distinctively American way of anthropological investigation that challenged ideas of race, particularly characteristics of Africans and Native Americans.

Morton postulated that a large cranial capacity meant a large brain and higher intelligence, while a smaller capacity indicated a small brain and decreased intelligence. Furthermore, Morton and his collectors believed in scientific polygenism (separate origins for various races of humans). During the racially charged antebellum decade, Morton’s theories led to widespread debate. It provided an empirical base for polygenist arguments that clashed with the work of other scientists and clergymen who believed all humans descended from Adam and Eve. This fueled a great controversy over the unity of the species of man, which continued after Morton’s death, founding what modern scholars refer to as “scientific racism.”

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia purchased Morton’s entire collection of human and animal crania in 1853, for the sum of $4,000. Over a century and a half later, the physical remains of Morton’s collection lie virtually forgotten and disseminated throughout three Philadelphia cultural institutions: The Academy of Natural Sciences (ANSP), The American Philosophical Society (APS), and The University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology (UPENN).

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