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.

Reaching The Tipping Point – the repatriation of the Morton collection from the Penn Museum

On April 12, 2021, The Morton Collection Committee released a report on their work of examining the ongoing issues relating to the anatomical collection created by Samuel George Morton (1799-1851), physician, natural scientist, renowned polygenist, and originator of the American School of Anthropology. Morton built a collection of 900 crania to provide “hard evidence” for the superiority of the white race, primarily by measuring the volume of the crania, linking the size of the brain to intellectual ability. The work was published in a series of volumes of which Crania Americana (1839), and Crania Aegyptica (1844) are the most well known. Both are renowned for their detailed drawings of the crania (see below), and both publications used the collection to demonstrate the alleged superiority of the “Caucasian race.” The collection is deposited at the Penn Museum since 1966, and it is now time, the report states, to take responsibility for this collection including developing a process for the repatriation of remains to descending communities.

Morton’s studies have been critically discussed by Stephen J. Gould who argued that they were plagued by implicit bias. This study, and Morton’s implicit bias in general have subsequently been discussed by J. E. Lewis et al., Michael Weisberg and Diane B. Paul, and Paul Wolff Mitchell , and while there is scholarly disagreement on the level of “fudging” in the study, there is a general consensus that Morton’s work was underpinned by the racist doctrine of polygenism, and that his ultimate conclusions as well as his casual remarks throughout the texts were openly racist. His work must also be understood in a context in which it provided scientific evidence that supported the American colonial effort, including attempts to eradicate and marginalise the Native Americans, and the economic system relying on both the transatlantic slave trade and on the labour of enslaved people.

Engraving of an Araucanian skull from Crania Americana by Samuel Morton, John Collins (engraver}, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Like so many other anatomical collections, the Morton collection has a complex history. Morton initially collected 900 crania, and after his death in 1851, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia bought and expanded the collection to ca 1.300 specimens. It was moved to the Penn Museum in 1966. We are familiar with similar transitions of historic collections from medical faculties to history museums (e.g. the anatomical collection transfered to the Lund University Historical Museum in 1995, and collections transferred to Gustavianum in Uppsala in 2009 and 2011, etc). When they are transfered to these museums – they are, in many ways, already a part of our history, being the cultural artefacts of a dark heritage of science. However, the fact that these collections are historical does not automatically neutralise them, and they remain both valuable and problematic. Since 2002 the Morton collection has been extensively scanned (over 17.500 CT scans have been distributed to researchers across the world), and the collection has continued to be used for research (source: PennMuseum/The Morton Cranial Collection).

While the collection had been known and debated as problematic for a long time, it appears that the situation came to a tipping point in the summer of 2020. In the report, the Morton Collection Committee clearly states that it was the events following the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 and the continuously growing influence of the Black Lives Matter movement and renewed calls for racial justice that prompted the institution to critically examine its history and reevaluate its relationship to the Morton collection.

In the US context, and for researchers who are familiar with the impact of the the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act on archaeological collections there since 1990, it seems almost strange that it took this long for the museum to “reassess its practices of collecting, storing, displaying, and researching human remains” and to provide “a visitation location for human remains that provides a quiet, contemplative space for reconnections and consultation visits in its future plans for rehousing the collections.” But this also demonstrates to what extent our practices are shaped by existing guidelines and legal frameworks, and how remains that are not explicitly subject to these have been able to remain more or less unaffected by the developments in other areas of museum practices with regards to human remains. However, it is also clear that the experience from engaging with NAGPRA over the past 30 years has been valuable as the museum develops practices to handle the current situation. It will be interesting to follow this development as a case study for how human remains in these complex and problematic anatomical collections may be curated and returned in the future.

As this work progresses, we must also remain engaged in continuing to examine how the engagement with these collections is shaped by current events, and assure that remains that are not illuminated by the limelight of current political debates are not forgotten. In addition, we should also ask to what extent new technology, like CT scanning, provides new solutions to old problems, or perhaps creates new problems and new ethical frontiers to examine.