Measuring Prejudice: Race Sciences of the 18-19th Centuries

Background of Craniometry

During the early 1800s, a physician from Philadelphia named Samuel G. Morton gathered and recorded the measurements of hundreds of human skulls to confirm a difference of brain size between the human races.  This gathering of data made him one of the pioneers of race science and physical anthropology, especially craniology.  His large collection of skulls from around the world convinced him that he could identify any skull’s race by simply measuring it and pouring lead pellets into the skulls.  This led Morton to assign the highest brain capacity to Europeans, to Chinese, then Southeast Asians, American Indians, and lastly to Africans and Australian aborigines.  Morton concluded from his differing skull measurements that polygenism, the belief that races were different species, with different origins was the answer to human origin. He was able to use his influence as a successful scientist to make the case for black inferiority and was able to negotiate the annexation of Texas as a slave state.  Although Morton used science to prove his theories it is clear he was able to do so using selection bias and the mismeasurement of his data to support his prejudicial views.

This research looks to shed a deeper understanding on his findings and also his follower Joseph C. Nott through the analysis of the scientific images produced by them.  Most images were successfully used by clearly displaying the difference in shape of skulls among races.  This easily swayed the public into believing in craniology because of  the already poor racial climate in the 18th and 19th century.  These images held a lot of power by using the notion that you “must see it to believe it”.


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