The Image Series: Crania Americana

Series November 1, 2015 3:17 pm

James Poskett is an historian of science, race and print at the University of Cambridge. He is the current holder of the Adrian Research Fellowship at Darwin College where he is completing his first book on the global history of phrenology. 

Pawnee Figure 1

‘Pawnee’, Plate 38, Samuel George Morton, Crania Americana (Philadelphia, 1839)


Crania Americana is a disturbing book. Published in the winter of 1839, it features seventy-eight lithographic plates of Native North and South American skulls. The mastermind behind this grim project was the Philadelphia physician Samuel George Morton. Today, Morton is most often remembered as the founder of a distinctive ‘American School’ of ethnology. But I’m not so sure this an accurate characterisation.

Historians of science love putting things in context, especially images. But in the case of Crania Americana we’ve been pretty unimaginative. In fact, we’ve not looked much further than the title for clues. Morton and his lithographs are held up time and time again as products of antebellum American culture. For generations of historians, from William Stanton onwards, the context is Andrew Jackson’s presidency and the aftermath of the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

Hang on. What’s the problem with this? Crania Americana was written by an American citizen, printed in America, and documents American anthropology. What could be more, uhh, American?!

Well, like a number of historians of science, I’m increasingly sceptical of narratives which divide the world into neat national contexts. As I’ve argued in a recent History of Science article, Crania Americana needs to be resituated within a global context of publication and reception, starting with the transatlantic world.

The lithograph of the ‘Pawnee’ skull is a nice example. Months before the publication of the finished work in December 1839, Morton sent a copy of this lithograph to the British ethnologist James Cowles Prichard. Prichard was really impressed. In fact, he was so impressed that he took it with him to Birmingham to display at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

On 7th August 1839, with the ‘Pawnee’ lithograph on display, Prichard gave his lecture. It was titled ‘On the Extinction of Some Varieties of the Human Race’. What followed was a massive political and disciplinary bust-up. Some phrenologists had come to spoil the party. Throughout the 1830s, both phrenologists and ethnologists promoted competing disciplinary ideals surrounding the study of man. And at Birmingham in 1839, both groups wanted to claim Morton’s impressive lithograph for themselves.

As soon as Prichard sat down, the phrenologist Hewett Watson challenged the ethnological account. Watson was convinced, unlike Prichard, that skulls could be read for signs of mental character. He pointed straight at the ‘Pawnee’ lithograph, arguing that it showed signs of moral depravity. The forehead was ‘villainously low’ in Watson’s eyes.

This showdown is a nice reminder of how images need to be understood as material objects. Lithographs were packaged up, shipped across the world, and waved around at scientific meetings. Most importantly for me, this was all happening six months before the publication of Crania Americana in Philadelphia. The reception of the ‘Pawnee’ lithograph in Britain then fed back into the publication of the final bound volume in the United States.

X mark

‘Cotonay’, Plate 40, Samuel George Morton, Crania Americana (Philadelphia, 1839)


Once he heard about what went down in Birmingham, Morton actually made some changes to the other lithographs in his book. Under pressure from the Scottish phrenologist George Combe, who was visiting the United States on a lecture tour, Morton added a small ‘X’ mark to Plate 40, the ‘Cotonay’ skull. This was intended to indicate the position from which the ‘reflecting’ phrenological organs had been measured.

It may seem like a minor alteration. But for Combe and his supporters, it was important. It was a way of arguing that Crania Americana, and the illustrations it contained, were essentially phrenological. They were not to be read, Combe argued, as part of Prichard’s ethnological project. Instead, the lithographs could be used to judge the size of different phrenological organs.

Scientific atlases, as Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison argue, play a major role in shaping scientific disciplines. Crania Americana is certainly a powerful example of this in action. But the study of the relationship between scientific disciplines and scientific atlases needs to start taking seriously the wider world of publication and reception. The nation is not the only context. Readers in the nineteenth century were in fact well aware of this. As one periodical put it in 1842, Morton not just an American. He was also a ‘Transatlantic Professor’.

For more on Morton’s lithographs, see Poskett, ‘National types: the transatlantic publication and reception of Crania Americana (1839)’, History of Science, 53 (2015), pp. 264-295.


 The Image Series invites HASTS affiliates and guest authors to write freely about one image relevant to their work.  To contribute to this set, contact Lan Li at lanli@mit.edu.

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