Posts tagged: 19th century

Staff Finds: Racial Profiling by Skull Measurement

sketches of two skulls

Sketches of skulls from A Collection of Crania.

While working on a Boston Medical Library-funded preservation project, Countway staff discovered a bound manuscript titled A Collection of Crania, copied from Pritchards [sic] Natural History of Man Illustrative of Campers [sic] Theory. The copyist was William Thornton Parker and the volume appears to have been constructed in 1847.

The bulk of the book is made up of copies of illustrations of skulls from various ethnicities, commentary on the drawings, and a single long excerpt at the beginning from Prichard’s The Natural History of Man (1843). Prichard’s book was intended as a popular history of the development of humans and the differences between humans living in different places. Petrus Camper’s theory, referred to in the title of Parker’s collection, was a mathematical method of describing human skulls by determining the angle of the front of the skull, roughly from the peak of the forehead to the jaw.

The skulls Parker has carefully copied into his miniature collection come mainly from Africa, Europe, and Asia, including Caucasian, African, Chinese, and Mongolian examples. Almost every skull is accompanied by a description of the racial characteristics that some author – it isn’t clear if it was Parker, Prichard, or Camper – thought were important.

By modern standards, the commentary is deeply racist with each skull described in terms of its similarity to “civilized” men, considered in this case to be Western Europeans. Women simply don’t enter into the argument at all. By contemporary standards, however, Parker was engaging with an ongoing and very modern scientific debate about the biological structure of humanity, the links between races and ethnic groups, and the development of humans as a species on Earth.

Echoes of this scientific debate can be seen in eugenics policies like those imposed by the Nazi regime in Germany, illustrated in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race exhibition  on display at the Countway Library through July 17, 2011.

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