History of the Morton Collection

Update on the Morton collection

For updates on the Museum’s work towards the repatriation and burial of the Morton Collection, please refer to this page.

The Morton Cranial Collection was acquired by Dr. Samuel George Morton during the 1830s and 1840s. After his death, the collection was purchased by the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia where it continued to grow under the curatorship of Dr. James Aitken Meigs. The collection fell into obscurity by the early 20th century until it was relocated to the Penn Museum in 1966. Since then, it has increasingly attracted scholarly attention and has been actively studied, researched, and published.

Skulls. – Dr. Samuel G. Morton, of Philadelphia, has recently deposited in the Academy of Natural Sciences of that city, an extensive series of skulls, embracing those of the different races of men and the various classes of inferior animals. A principal object in forming this collection is to investigate the peculiarities of the aboriginal inhabitants of the American continent; and persons who are in possession of Indian crania, are respectfully invited to communicate with Dr. M. in reference to them.

On November 15, 1831, this notice was published in the New England Journal of Medicine

Morton (1799-1851) played a major role in administrating the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (ANSP) during the early 19th century. He is now best known for his collection of human skulls, currently curated at the Penn Museum.2 Morton stated that he began to collect human skulls in 1830, after he was preparing a lecture on “the form of the skull as seen in the five races of men,” but found that such skulls “could neither be bought nor borrowed.”3 However, one of Morton’s medical colleagues recalled seeing skulls in Morton’s office not long after Morton began his medical practice in the early 1820s.4

By 1849, Morton reported that he had acquired 867 human skulls through “much time toil and expense.”5 This was not his own physical toil, however. Morton relied on friends and colleagues to acquire skulls and ship them to him.6 He had made many professional connections during the 1820s and 1830s when he was quite active with the ANSP, serving as its recording secretary, curator, and corresponding secretary.7 In 1840, 1844, and 1849, Morton published catalogues which listed each skull in his collection at that time, including both human and animal skulls. When Morton received a skull, he assigned it an ID number. In some instances, he recorded the date when the skull was acquired, as well as the racial or ethnic grouping of the skull, and what information his supplier sent Morton about the location from which the skull derived.

From 1831 until Morton’s death in 1851, the skulls in Morton’s collection were housed in the ANSP, although they were his personal property. In 1852, William Ruschenberger (1807-1895) inventoried the ANSP collection and noted that in the “cases on the south flying-gallery there are 968 human crania” of which “918, constitute the collection deposited by the late Dr. Morton.”8 However, once Morton died his associates at the ANSP were not sure what to do with these skulls. The ANSP’s collections curator, Joseph Leidy (1823-1891) was “urged to continue Morton’s work, but declined.”9 There is evidence that two years after Morton died, the ANSP was considering selling the collection. A March 3, 1853 dairy entry written by Harvard University Medical School’s first dean, John Collins Warren (1778-1856), reads “At the Natural-History Society, it was agreed to send Dr. Kneeland to Philadelphia to make the purchase of Dr. Morton’s collection of Crania. Dr. Bernard, a member, offered to take upon himself the responsibility of the two thousand dollars.”10 In 1854, Patterson wrote that 42 “liberal citizens” of Philadelphia pooled their funds and purchased Morton’s skulls for $4,000, presumably paid to his widow.11

Circa 1854, the curation of Morton’s collection was assigned to J. Aitkin Meigs (1829-1879), who would go on to become a leading Philadelphia physician associated with Pennsylvania College, the Franklin Institute, and Jefferson Medical College.12 Meigs was a member of the ANSP for 27 years, and his biographer noted that in 1854 he was “elected a member of the Academy's Standing Committee on Ethnology, and in 1857 became its Chairman and held the position until the committee was finally abolished in 1876.”13 This passage indirectly indicates that by 1876, the ANSP was no longer interested in studying human racial variation. However, during his curatorship, Meigs conducted some research on the skulls. In 1857, he published an updated catalog of the skulls in the Morton collection, which by then had increased by 67 skulls and was located in “16 cases on the first gallery of the south side of the lower room of the museum.”14

Through much of the remainder of the 19th century, the crania were displayed, occasionally studied, and photographed as early as the 1890s at the ANSP. By the mid-20th century, many of the crania were off display. In 1966, the ANSP transferred a loan of the Morton collection to the Penn Museum, under the curatorship of physical anthropologist Dr. Wilton M. Krogman. Later, the curatorship was transferred to Dr. Alan E. Mann, then Dr. Janet M. Monge. In the 1990s, the collection was gifted to the Penn Museum.

Scholarly Research

From 2004 to 2011, the Penn Museum was awarded a National Science Foundation grant (DBI/BIO-0447271) to CT scan the Samuel Morton Collection of crania. 4,215 museum osteological specimens at the Penn Museum and in coordination with our 12 partner institutions, were scanned, including 1,355 crania from the Morton Collection. The scans and the database generated for use in many research areas can be viewed at the ORSA ORSA (Open-Research-Scan-Archive). A complete list of the Morton specimens is available on this site. As of March 2018, over 15,000 CT scans have been distributed to scholars around the world. Often researchers use both the actual crania together with CT scans in their research agenda.

Some recent research topics using collections and their associated CT scans are:

Intellectual Merit

Funds from this NSF grant were used to expand on the production of CT scans of the Penn Museum collections of human, primate, and mammal bones/teeth and mummified remains and to make these scans available freely to the worldwide research community. The use of CT scans has become a primary research tool in the analysis of modern human variation and in the analysis of the emergence of modernity within the human evolutionary lineage. In addition to the free access to these virtual collections, a series of tools have been developed. These tools include complex geometry, geometric morphometric, and non-rigid deformation analysis, for the analysis of the raw data derived from the scans (in conjunction with the Penn Image Computing and Science Laboratory, Department of Radiology, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania). By 2018, 4,215 scans were completed in collaboration with 12 contributing institutions, 112 researchers, and 27 collaborating scholars. The program trained 15 graduate students and 11 undergraduates (7 of whom moved into professional training programs) in both scanning and analysis techniques.

A world-wide listing of researchers using the Morton Collection from 2008 to 2018 (alphabetically listed by last name):

Selected technical publications using CT scans of the Morton Collection