A recent Washington Post investigation revealed the extent of the “racial brain collection” amassed by Ales Hrdlicka, the curator of the division of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian’s United States National Museum, which was a forerunner of the National Museum of Natural History.
Hrdlicka was primarily responsible for gathering some 250 human brains in the early decades of the twentieth century from a network of scientists, physicians, and professors, all in service of proving the biological superiority of white people. Most of the brains were from Black, Indigenous, and other non-white people, and many, if not most, were taken without consent from the individuals or their relatives.
As gruesome as this sounds, Hrdlicka wasn’t alone in his quest, as our new entry on Eugenics at the University of Virginia makes clear. The Smithsonian scientist was one of many in thrall to the pseudoscience of eugenics at the height of the Progressive Era. His counterpart at UVA was Robert Bennett Bean, who became chair of anatomy at the UVA medical school in 1916.
As contributor Preston Reynolds, MD, PhD, MACP, details in the entry:
Bean studied the brains of white, Black, and mixed-race people and concluded that white people had larger brains and, therefore, were innately biologically superior—although later studies were not able to duplicate his findings.
Bean spread his ideas through popular publications like Century Magazine, where he wrote in 1906 that Black people were not “capable of mental development” in the same way as white people. Like other members of the UVA faculty who promoted eugenics, he argued that this supposed lack of capability justified limiting educational opportunities and the vote for African Americans.
Men of “science” like Bean and Hrdlicka apparently never stopped to interrogate how their work conveniently reinforced existing racial hierarchies. They trained and influenced a generation of leaders who moved into positions in universities, scientific institutions, and public health agencies, reinforcing a culture of scientific racism and white supremacy.
In addition to Bean, eugenics faculty were recruited to positions across the university under the direction of UVA President Edwin Alderman, who turned UVA into the southern center of eugenic teaching, research, and policy during the first half of the twentieth century. These faculty, in turn, provided “research” and lobbying support to promote eugenics policies like the state-sponsored sterilization of those considered genetically unfit and the Racial Integrity Acts that, among other purposes, banned interracial marriage.
As a result, Virginia became a leader in the promotion and practice of eugenic sterilization in the first half of the twentieth century, as detailed in our entry on Eugenic Sterilization in Virginia. In 1924, Virginia passed a compulsory sterilization law intended to limit the reproduction of disabled, poor, and “feebleminded” individuals committed to state hospitals. It’s estimated that some 8,000 people were sterilized in the commonwealth between 1927 and 1979, although the peak occurred between 1933 and 1944. After that time, eugenics fell out of favor due to its flawed scientific underpinnings and its association with Nazi Germany’s eugenics practices. But as our new entries make clear, its corrosive effects lingered far longer.
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