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Bodies of Knowledge

Philadelphia and the dark history of collecting human remains.

In 2010, I found myself writing a history dissertation while seated at a desk next to a preserved human leg. While researching what would eventually become my first book, I encountered a whole range of remarkable and deeply unsettling situations, but perhaps no city with a legacy of human remains collecting hit me quite as hard as Philadelphia. Since that time, the city and its storied institutions have faced an important reckoning as it relates to historical medical and anthropological collections. These collections, largely built in the 19th and early 20th centuries, reflect scientific racism’s profound influence, ideas that pushed people to believe humanity could be divided into an ethnic or racial hierarchy—an imagined reality where white men always came out on top.

Scholars, museum curators, and the public are beginning to fully grasp the vast and diverse array of human remains collections in cities like Philadelphia and how they got there. The century-old human leg I briefly encountered was part of a sizable and historically significant medical collection at the Mütter Museum in downtown Philadelphia. Collectors of all kinds, motivated by a range of factors from scientific curiosity to profit and trophy hunting, all actively gathered remains for decades. Museums in the United States continue to hold hundreds of thousands of human remains in their collections.

The oldest university in Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), was established in 1740, with a medical school following in 1765. Penn did not start to acquire human remains for “scientific” purposes until later. The school established the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (the Penn Museum) in 1887.

The Penn Museum eventually amassed one of the largest collections of anthropological and archaeological materials in the nation and became a leading institution in coordinating global archaeological expeditions for the benefit of American scholars. The museum also made occasional selective purchases. This included 42 boxes sold to dealers by the Wetherill family, the famed “explorers” and looters of ancient Indigenous sites in the American Southwest, including the cliff dwellings around Mesa Verde. The human remains the Wetherills absconded with included mummified bodies that were first displayed at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago before being offered for sale. A book serving as a guide to the fair and documenting the temporary exhibits reads, “The visitor was introduced to a large exhibit of the mummified remains and domestic relics of the Cliff-Dwellings, the oldest semi-civilization of the Western Continent.” The fair’s exhibit was “so skillfully arranged that the visitor to the displays seemed to be standing in the very midst of the real ruins, and shaking hands, as it were, with the dusty remains of a people who played their part in the drama of the world more than a thousand years ago.”