Penn's Medical School was a center of scientific racism used to justify slavery and colonialism. Samuel Morton and other leading figures were trained at Penn and played a major role in the production of scientific racism and the lingering and pernicious legacies of race science


The Morton Cranial Collection

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Samuel Morton

Dr. Samuel George Morton was a Penn alumnus and professor at the Medical School. Morton attended Penn, graduating with an MD in 1820 before studying at Edinburgh. After returning to Philadelphia in 1824, Morton began practicing medicine. In 1839, he was appointed to a professorship at Penn Medical, where he taught until 1843. During his time as a professor, Morton lectured on anatomy and ethnology.

Morton advanced the theory of polygenesis through his study of craniometry, the study of skull size and volume, which Morton argued was a measure of racial difference.

Of the 867 human crania Samuel Morton collected during his lifetime, 53 crania belonged to enslaved people from Havana, Cuba. Two other crania likely belonged to enslaved Americans. These two are labeled Crania 1310 and Crania 1975.

Crania 1310 likely belonged to an enslaved woman from North Carolina. Moron received her cranium from Dr. J Hardy. 

Crania 1975 likely belonged to an enslaved man held in Delaware. He was hanged in Virginia, allegedly for rape, in 1839. This cranium was likely given to James Atkins Meigs, Morton's successor, after his death. He was likely named Jeff or Frank James. 

Both crania remain in the collection at the Penn Museum.


Crania Americana (1839)

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Image from Samuel Morton's Crania Americana

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Morton published Crania Americana in 1839 during the time he was a professor at Penn Medical College. The work divides mankind into five distinct races, ranked by supposed intellectual capacity.

Morton writes of the "Ethiopian Race:"

"Characterized by a black complexion… the negro is joyous, flexible and indolent: while the many nations which compose this race present a singular diversity of intellectual character of which the far extreme is the lowest grade of humanity."

Crania circulated widely through the United States, and it quickly became the leading text on racial difference. Morton collected 867 human skulls during his lifetime, which were ultimately gifted to the Penn Museum more than a century after Morton’s death. As he conducted his research, Morton meticulously labeled each skull according to ethnicity.

In 1840, Morton taught a course on racial difference at Penn Medical School. Transcripts from five of his lectures on the subject survive at the Library Company of Philadelphia; the topics include phrenology, the characteristics and temperaments of each race, and various strategies for racial categorization. In his first lecture, Morton stated that

" is assumed that the physical characteristics which distinguish the different Races, are independent of external causes."

Shortly after citing the mythic biblical flood as evidence of polygenesis. Morton refered to biblical events and divine creation as support for theories of racial difference.


Cuban Slave Barracoon (1860)