Samuel George Morton

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Samuel George Morton

Dr. Samuel George Morton was a Penn alumnus and professor at the Medical School. In 1846, Josiah Nott (MD 1827) wrote to Morton,

‘My Niggerology, so far from harming me at home, has made me a greater man than I ever expected to be-I am the big gun of the profession here.’

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.

Crania Americana

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Image sent to Morton, American Philosophical Society

Morton published ‘Crania Americana’ in 1839 while 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, characteristics, and temperaments of each race and various strategies for racial categorization. In his first lecture, Morton states 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’s lectures and publications reference Biblical events and Divine creation as support for racial difference.

~ Carson Eckhard