The Anatomical Collection at Karolinska. Report from a seminar.

On March 29, 2022, Karolinska institutet organised a seminar on their anatomical collection. The purpose of the seminar was to present the history of the collection, and to discuss possible ways forward as the institution grapples with a problematic history. This work is part of a broader engagement on behalf of Karolinska with regards to its history, and in particular its past connections to research on “race”, and the place the collection of crania had in this history. As a first formal step of this process of reckoning with the past, the institution raised the issue of honorific names on its campus – a topic already discussed in this blog. The second step is now to handle the collection of human remains.

Biomedicum, Karolinska Institutet – location for the seminar. Photo: Liv Nilsson Stutz

The seminar was introduced by the University President Ole Petter Ottersen who welcomed all to the newly inaugurated lecture hall named in honor of Eva and Georg Klein, both Jewish immigrants from Hungary after the Second World War, and viewed as representing the value of civil discourse and academic conversations also about difficult topics. To me, this introduction rightly framed the collection of human remains as such a difficult topic, as one worthy of civil discourse and academic exchange and – perhaps most importantly, as a topic around which we need to start by listening to one another.

The seminar was not uncontroversial and had received criticism even before it started, for example by Amnesty Sápmi. The critique focused on the fact that the speakers were identified as majority population seniors, and as such not able to speak on behalf of the remains themselves, or on behalf of descendants. This is true. But then again, the participants did not claim to do this, but rather participated to explore the topic from historical, anthropological and legal perspectives and expertise.

As the first speaker, Dr Imelda Helena Ek (Karolinska Institutet), presented her report on the history of the collection and placed it within a broader 19th century context in which race biology was an inherent component. The history of the collection is complicated by the fact that it was partially destroyed by a fire in 1892, during which the archives that today would have allowed researchers to retrace a lot of the history of individual remains, were lost. Typically, as the collection became obsolete for medical science and eventually also problematic, it has circulated between different institutions including Stockholm Univerity, Gutavianum and the Medical History Museum. In 2015 the collection returned to Karolinska and once more became its responsibility. Since the remains were returned they are not available for research and are not exhibited. Several international repatriations have been completed following international praxis. A sensitive part of the collection constitutes the remains of 70 individuals, a majority represented only by their cranium, that were taken from graves (both from prehistoric sites and from abandoned historic cemeteries) in Finland, during an expedition in 1883. While these remains were dug up, they were not part of any regular archaeological excavation, but must be viewed as collected for anatomical purposes. The motivation to collect these remains was to obtain specimen of what was considered to be “Finnish types” for the comparative anatomical collection. There is thus a direct line here between both race science and Sweden’s colonial history. It is generally felt that this collection is problematic, but according to KI any repatriation must be negotiated between the Swedish and the Finnish states. All KI can do is to inform about what they have in their care.

Back of bust of Gustaf Retzius. Source: Stockholms Aktionsverk

The second speaker was me (Liv Nilsson Stutz), and I focused on problematising one of the main ideas of the project Ethical Entaglements, i.e. the way in which human remains are situated on a sliding scale between objects of science and lived lives, and how the ways in which we perceive them depend on their state, character and history, and on external factors such as social and cultural awareness. As a suggestion of consideration for the future I also proposed that instead of rushing to clean out the closets, we approach the responsibility from a perspective of ethics of care, and thus move beyond the idea of formulating strategies based on the perceived value of the remains for science. An ethics of care perspective also means that institutions may have to take long term responsibility for remains that will never be claimed for repatriation, and also for its history and heritage – even when dark and uncomfortable.

The final speaker was professor emerita Kirsti Ström Bull who presented her experiences as a legal scholar involved in the legal cases leading up to the repatriation of Sámi remains from institutions in Norway. These cases have had a long term impact on the handling of ethical evaluation of research on human remains in Norway, where currently a national ethcis committee (Skjelettutvalget) reviews all requests for research on human remains. In cases of Sámi remains, the Sámi parliament is always included in the consultation. This kind of mechanism might be very valuable also for Sweden to consider as we build a more solid research ethics on human remains from all contexts – going beyond the immediate considerations of the Karolinska collection. Professor Bull underscored the importance of allowing the process to take time and be an opportunity to build trust and understanding.

“While we’ve had an academic discussion today on complex issues in which different opinions and criticisms have been raised, what we’ve also discussed concerns the concept of the equal value of all humans.”

President of KI, Professor Ole Petter Ottosen

After the presentation the floor (and online chatroom) opened for questions and comments. Natte Hillerberg from the organisation Sträva at Karolinska (an organisation of students and alumni at Karolinska organising for equal care for all) called out the lack of representation on the panel. She drew attention in particular to the human remains collected in Finland. The Q&A with participants in the auditorium and online explored issues relating to what might happen to the collection in the future, what kind of research questions may be explored, possibilities and experiences of repatriation of human remains from the collection, and what KI can learn from good experiences of repatriation from, for example Norway.

President of KI, Professor Ole Petter Ottosen concluded: “While we’ve had an academic discussion today on complex issues in which different opinions and criticisms have been raised, what we’ve also discussed concerns the concept of the equal value of all humans.”

FEATURED IMAGE: ANATOMICAL PLATES 1855. RETZIUS, ANDERS et al. Museum anatomicum Holmiense quod auspiciis augustissimi regis Oscaris primi ediderunt professores Regiae Scholae Medico.Chirurgicae Caroliensis. Sectio Pathologica.

 

Echos Through Time – the debate about honorific names at Karolinska Institutet and the connection to research ethics today

Last week I was asked to write a short comment for the public outreach science publication Forskning & Framsteg about the ongoing debate concerning the names given to buildings and streets on the campus of the medical university Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm (you can read the full text in Swedish here). This debate can be understood as a Swedish reaction to the broader international protest movement that aims to change the names figuring on university campuses – especially in the United States – that are associated to slave owners and racists.

After protests by students and staff against the names, a thorough report on the history of the naming practices at Karolinska was written by Petter Hellström. He clarifies that the practice to name buildings, lecture halls, labs and even streets after prominent researchers really only became established in the 1990s as the University started to model itself on an Anglosaxon campus model. The individuals thus honoured were mostly medical scientists. Some of them can be linked to race science, racial hygiene ideology, and even Nazi politics.

Among those honoured we find Anders Retzius (1796-1860) and Gustav Retzius (1842-1919), a father and son both leading figures at Karolinska, and both heavily implicated in the emerging anthropological race science of their time. Anders Retzius was professor in anatomy at Karolinska and is famous for his cephalic index that allowed him to separate out dolichocephalic and bracycephalic forms, and thus define different human “races.” In addition to describing and organising differences he observed in the anatomy, he also added a value system in which the viewed the Nordic races, and in particular the Swedish, as superior, often using a condescending and problematic vocabulary to describe others. His research was in this way both leading and fundamental in establishing a racial typology at the time.

For the purposes of this project it is key to understand that this research craved human crania and was a driving factor in the collection (through excavations of graves, theft, and the taking of anatomical specimen in hospital institutions dominated by poor and otherwise marginalised patients) and trade with colleagues such as Morton in Philadelphia, in human skulls. Gustav Retzius, professor in histology and anatomy followed in his fathers footsteps and while he did not drive the research front forward as significantly in the field of racial anthropology, he was a very active collector and also participated in the trade in specimens.

It is surprising, to say the least, that even in the 1990s and 2000s, these names were not viewed as problematic enough to be considered out of the question. We must assume that the reason for this was not that any of the committees making decisions on the names sympathised with these ideologies. But what this seems to indicate is that, at the time, the people making decisions were not concerned about racism – probably because they had never experienced it themselves, and likely because they thought about it as something of a distant past – of history, with no actual implications today. This is problematic for many reasons, and I want to underscore a few central aspects that are of particular importance.

The lack of engagement with the topic at the time indicates a lack of diversity at the decision making levels of the institution. The fact that these names were not viewed as problematic a mere 20 years ago is a good illustration of the fact that Sweden has not truly tackled racism in society and in the academy, not in the past, and not in the present. As the academy and research become increasingly international and diverse arenas, this attitude is no longer sustainable.

Medical and medical anthropological research has demonstrated that not only is racism real in societies, but it also affects heath, well being and health outcomes for those affected by it. It is therefore not sustainable that a leading medical research and teaching institution like Karolinska does not firmly take a stand against race science, even if it was carried out in the past.

The collections made by researchers like the Retziuses still haunt archaeology and biological anthropolgy, and have undermined our credibility with other stakeholders generations down the road.

From the perspective of the project Ethical Entanglements, it is also crucial to understand that also research and science outside of the immediate purview of Karolinska has suffered from this legacy. The collections made by researchers like the Retziuses still haunt archaeology and biological anthropology, and have undermined our credibility with other stakeholders generations down the road. Their collections, and the specimens they have traded, are still sitting on shelves in our museums, museums that now are given the difficult task of ethically caring for them. The fact that researchers like these are still honoured makes it difficult to argue that the disciplines have truly changed.

The past has consequences and ethical implications also in the present. The debate about the names at Karolinska will continue, but for now they have made a decision to remove the most problematic ones – like references to Anders and Gustaf Retzius. This is a good step toward a more inclusive and diverse academy and it will also likely help in building trust outside of it.