Smithsonian Targeted D.C.’s Vulnerable to Build Its Brain Collection

Nicole Dungca and Claire Healy, The Washington Post, Smithsonian Targeted D.C.’s Vulnerable to Build Its Brain Collection, Thursday, 14 December 2023: “A 59-year-old Black woman died of epilepsy in October 1903 at the Washington Asylum Hospital, an institution that housed the District’s indigent. Almost five months later, tuberculosis killed a 21-month-old Black toddler at Children’s Hospital in D.C. The next month, an 11-year-old White boy died of a lung condition at Children’s. Upon their deaths, one of the Smithsonian Institution’s top anthropologists, Ales Hrdlicka, enlisted the local institutions and doctors to help him remove their brains to build a ‘racial brain collection.’ Hrdlicka, who sought brains and other body parts to prove now-debunked theories on racial differences, was taking advantage of the District’s most vulnerable residents, records show. The Smithsonian would eventually acquire more than 280 brains from around the world. More than a quarter — 74 — of the brains still held by the Smithsonian were from local people, according to documents reviewed by The Washington Post. Of those, 48 were Black. At least 19 of the brains are described in documents as having been removed from fetuses, including one following an abortion. Seventeen came from children. Three were taken from people who died in the hospital that served the city’s almshouse. One was taken from a deaf and mute man…. In August, The Post published the most extensive accounting to date of the brains and more than 30,000 other body parts gathered largely at Hrdlicka’s direction, revealing that the institution’s National Museum of Natural History has not returned the vast majority of the remains in its possession, even though most appear to have been taken without consent.”