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Samuel George Morton

Samuel George Morton

American physician
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro American physician
Countries United States of America
Occupations Anthropologist Physician
Gender male
Birth January 26, 1799 (Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.)
Death May 15, 1851 (Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.)
Education University of Edinburgh, University of Pennsylvania
The details

Samuel George Morton (January 26, 1799 – May 15, 1851) was an American physician and natural scientist. Morton, reared a Quaker but became Episcopalian in midlife, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, attended Westtown School, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1820. After earning an advanced degree from Edinburgh University in Scotland, he began practice in Philadelphia in 1824. He was one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Medical College in Philadelphia and served as its professor of anatomy from 1839 until his resignation 1843. He was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1844.

Morton was a prolific writer of books on various subjects from 1823 to 1851. He wrote Geological Observations in 1828, and both Synopsis of the Organic Remains of the Cretaceous Group of the United States and Illustrations of Pulmonary Consumption in 1834. His first medical essay, on the user of cornine in intermittent fever, in 1825 was published in the Philadelphia Journal of the Medical and Physical Sciences. His bibliography includes Hybridity in Animals and Plants (1847), Additional Observation on Hybridity (1851), and An Illustrated System of Human Anatomy (1849).

"American School" ethnography

Samuel George Morton is often thought of as the originator of "American School" ethnography, a school of thought in antebellum American science that claimed the difference between humans was one of species rather than variety and is seen by some as the origin of scientific racism.

Morton argued against the single creation story of the Bible (monogenism) and instead supported a theory of multiple racial creations (polygenism). Morton claimed the Bible supported polygenism, and within working in a biblical framework his theory held that each race had been created separately and each was given specific, irrevocable characteristics.

After inspecting three mummies from ancient Egyptian catacombs, Morton concluded that Caucasians and Negroes were already distinct three thousand years ago. Since the Bible indicated that Noah's Ark had washed up on Mount Ararat, only a thousand years ago before this, Morton claimed that Noah's sons could not possibly account for every race on earth. According to Morton's theory of polygenesis, races have been separate since the start.

Morton claimed that he could define the intellectual ability of a race by the skull capacity. A large volume meant a large brain and high intellectual capacity, and a small skull indicated a small brain and decreased intellectual capacity. He was reputed to hold the largest collection of skulls, on which he based his research. He claimed that each race had a separate origin, and that a descending order of intelligence could be discerned that placed Caucasians at the pinnacle and Negroes at the lowest point, with various other race groups in between. Morton had many skulls from ancient Egypt, and concluded that the ancient Egyptians were not African, but were Caucasian. His results were published in three volumes between 1839 and 1849: the Crania Americana, An Inquiry into the Distinctive Characteristics of the Aboriginal Race of America and Crania Aegyptiaca.

Morton's theories were very popular in his day, and he was a highly respected physician and scientist. The anthropologist Aleš Hrdlička called Morton "the father of American physical anthropology". Crispin Bates has noted that Morton's "systematic justification" for the separation of races, along with the work of Louis Agassiz, was also used by those who favoured slavery in the United States, with the Charleston Medical Journal noting at his death that "We of the South should consider him as our benefactor for aiding most materially in giving to the negro his true position as an inferior race."


Engraving of Morton from the frontispiece to Types of Mankind by Nott and Gliddon

Morton claimed in his Crania Americana that the Caucasians had the biggest brains, averaging 87 cubic inches (1,426 cc), Indians were in the middle with an average of 82 cubic inches (1,344 cc) and Negroes had the smallest brains with an average of 78 cubic inches (1,278 cc). Morton believed that the skulls of each race were so different that a wise creator from the beginning had created each race and positioned them in separate homelands to dwell in.

Morton believed that cranial capacity determined intellectual ability, and he used his craniometric evidence in conjunction with his analysis of anthropological literature then available to argue in favor of a racial hierarchy which put Caucasians on the top rung and Africans on the bottom. His skull measurements (by volume) then came to serve as "evidence" for racial stereotypes. He described the Caucasian as "distinguished by the facility with which it attains the highest intellectual endowments"; Native Americans were described as "averse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge; restless, revengeful, and fond of war, and wholly destitute of maritime adventure" and the Africans he described as "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".

Morton's followers, particularly Josiah C. Nott and George Gliddon in their monumental tribute to Morton's work, Types of Mankind (1854), carried Morton's ideas further and backed up his findings which supported the notion of polygenism – the premise that the different races were separately created by God. The publication of Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species in 1859 changed the nature of the scholarly debate.


Allegations of bias in data collection

In a 1978 paper and later in The Mismeasure of Man (1981), Stephen J. Gould asserted that Morton had, perhaps because of an unconscious bias, selectively reported data, manipulated sample compositions, made analytical errors, and mismeasured skulls in order to support his prejudicial views on intelligence differences between different populations. Gould's book became widely read and Morton came to be considered one of the main cases of the effects of unconscious bias in data collection, and as one of the main figures in the early history of scientific racism.

Subsequently, two separate studies of Morton's data and methods, one conducted in 1988 and the other in 2011, argued that Gould had overstated or misrepresented the case, and that Morton's measurement's were essentially correct.

In the latter study, entitled "The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias" and authored by six anthropologists, it was concluded that the bias came from Gould, who failed to examine and remeasure the crania in order to determine Morton's level of accuracy.

However, this study was reviewed in an editorial in Nature, which recommended a degree of caution, stating "the critique leaves the majority of Gould's work unscathed," and noted that "because they couldn't measure all the skulls, they do not know whether the average cranial capacities that Morton reported represent his sample accurately." The journal stated that Gould's opposition to racism may have biased his interpretation of Morton's data, but also noted that "Lewis and his colleagues have their own motivations. Several in the group have an association with the University of Pennsylvania, and have an interest in seeing the valuable but understudied skull collection freed from the stigma of bias" and did not accept Gould's theory "that the scientific method is inevitably tainted by bias."

A 2014 review of the paper by University of Pennsylvania philosophy professor Michael Weisberg, tended to support Gould's original accusations, concluding that "there is prima facie evidence of a racial bias in Morton's measurements". Weisberg concludes that although Gould did commit mistakes in his own treatment, Morton's work "remains a cautionary example of racial bias in the science of human differences".


  • Crania Americana; or, A Comparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South America: To which is Prefixed An Essay on the Varieties of the Human Species. Philadelphia: J. Dobson, 1839.
  • Crania Aegyptiaca; or, Observations on Egyptian ethnography, derived from anatomy, history, and the monuments. Philadelphia: J. Penington, 1844.
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