Down to the bones

Down to the bones

A 19th Century Phrenology Chart

A 19th Century Phrenology Chart

Years ago you’d go to the barber for your cures.

A few leeches to suck your blood or a loose molar pulled.

Scientific knowledge was learned through experience—an extraction gets rid of the toothache.

Then, around the middle of the 19th century, some doctors refined their craft by using tools to measure the skull: calipers, craniometers and rulers.

One scientist—Samuel Morton—developed an ingenious method for measuring the volume of the cranium.

He took a human skull, plugged the holes and sockets, turned it upside down and filled the cavity with lead shot. The more the shot, the more the brains.

Morton’s work was considered scientific: he used tried-and-true measurements with real instruments.

Problem was racial profiling based on skull size shows a leap of faith—that skull structure is correlated with personality.

Phrenologists like Morton claimed they could detect personality characteristics by examining the skull: destructiveness, secretiveness and morality could be discovered along with a host of other traits.

Morton’s findings were used to promote racism for those who needed scientific evidence to bolster their claims.

The larger the skull, the bigger the brain: hence, the greater the intellect.

As you can guess, Caucasians have the largest heads and are “intellectually endowed,” Morton wrote.

Based on skull size and dimension, he placed the five “races” into a hierarchical order with Caucasians at the top.

Second on the list is the Mongolian race (Asians, for example), whom he called “ingenious, imitative, and highly susceptible of cultivation.”

The Malay race (Polynesians, for example) is third, considered “active and ingenious.”

American Indians come next. We are “averse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge; restless, revengeful, and fond of war.”

Last is the Ethiopian or Negro race, considered “joyous, flexible, and indolent” with the “lowest grade of humanity.”

Just goes to show that science can be scientific—but not necessarily correct.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in american indian, authenticity, framing, Indian, journalism, Native Science, science, science communication, Uncategorized, writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Down to the bones

  1. Thanks for the reminder. I tend to conflate scientific and science, and should know better….


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