WATCH: Inside the Smithsonian's 'racial brain collection' - an unreconciled legacy of a grisly practice

A newspaper with a story on Hrdlicka is stored at the National Anthropological Archives in the Smithsonian Museum Support Center. Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges.

A newspaper with a story on Hrdlicka is stored at the National Anthropological Archives in the Smithsonian Museum Support Center. Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges.

Published Aug 19, 2023


By Nicole Dungca, Claire Healy

On the day Mary Sara died of tuberculosis in a Seattle sanitarium, the doctor caring for the 18-year-old offered her brain to one of the most revered museums in the world.

The young woman - whose family was Sami, or indigenous to areas that include northern Scandinavia - had travelled with her mother by ship from her Alaska hometown at the invitation of physician Charles Firestone, who had offered to treat the older woman for cataracts.

Now, Firestone sought to take advantage of Sara's death for a "racial brain collection" at the Smithsonian Institution. He contacted a museum official in May 1933 by telegram.

Ales Hrdlicka, the 64-year-old curator of the division of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian's US National Museum, was interested in Sara's brain for his collection.

But only if she was "full-blood," he noted, using a racist term to question whether her parents were both Sami.

The 35-year-old doctor removed Sara's brain after she died and mailed it to Washington, DC, where Smithsonian officials tagged it with a reference number and stored it in the museum, now the site of the National Museum of Natural History, alongside scores of other brains taken across the world.

Nearly 100 years later, Sara's brain is still housed by the institution, wrapped in muslin and immersed in preservatives in a large metal container.

It is stored in a museum facility in Maryland with 254 other brains, amassed mostly in the first half of the 20th century.

Almost all of them were gathered at the behest of Hrdlicka, a prominent anthropologist who believed that White people were superior and collected body parts to further now-debunked theories about anatomical differences between races.

Most of the brains were removed upon death from Black and Indigenous people and other people of colour.

They are part of a collection of at least 30,700 human bones and other body parts still held by the Natural History Museum, the most-visited museum within the Smithsonian.

The collection, one of the largest in the world, includes mummies, skulls, teeth and other body parts, representing an unknown number of people.

The remains are the unreconciled legacy of a grisly practice in which bodies and organs were taken from graveyards, battlefields, morgues and hospitals in more than 80 countries.

The decades-long effort was financed and encouraged by the taxpayer-subsidized institution.

The collection, which was mostly amassed by the early 1940s, has long been hidden from view.

The Washington Post has assembled the most extensive analysis and accounting of the holdings to date.

The vast majority of the remains appear to have been gathered without consent from the individuals or their families, by researchers preying on people who were hospitalized, poor, or lacked immediate relatives to identify or bury them.

In other cases, collectors, anthropologists and scientists dug up burial grounds and looted graves.

An illustrated map of the 1904 World’s Fair, viewed from south to north. Picture: Library of Congress.

The Natural History Museum has lagged in its efforts to return the vast majority of the remains in its possession to descendants or cultural heirs, The Post's investigation found. Of at least 268 brains collected by the museum, officials have repatriated only four.

The Smithsonian requires people with a personal interest or legal right to the remains to issue a formal request, a virtual impossibility for many would-be claimants, since they are unaware of the collection's existence.

A federal law mandates that the Smithsonian only inform Native American, Alaska Native or Native Hawaiian communities about any remains, leaving an estimated 15,000 body parts in limbo.

The Post tracked down Sara's relatives using Smithsonian documents. When reporters contacted them through the Sami Cultural Center of North America, they had no idea that her brain had been taken.

Relatives said they were stunned that the institution never contacted them and are now seeking to have her brain returned.

"It's a violation against our family and against our people," said Fred Jack, the husband to one of Sara's cousins. "It's kind of like an open wound. . . . We want to have peace and we'll have no peace because we know this exists, until it's corrected."

The Natural History Museum said that in the last three decades it has returned 4,068 sets of human remains and offered to repatriate 2,254 more.

Those remains belong to more than 6,900 people, because some sets include the remains of more than one person.

Due to the manner in which body parts have been catalogued, the museum does not know the exact number of body parts or people represented in its overall collection.

Museum officials said they have made substantial progress repatriating remains, despite having a small staff devoted to the work.

While The Post's investigation was underway, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III in April issued a statement apologising for how the institution collected many of its human remains in the past, and he announced the creation of a task force to determine what to do with the remains. In an interview, Bunch also said it was his goal to promote repatriation.

"I know that so much of this has been based on racist attitudes, that these brains were really people of colour to demonstrate the superiority of White brains, so I understand that is just really unconscionable," Bunch said.

Mary Sara hides behind her mother, Kristina Ante, left, in Akiak, Alaska, circa 1920. Next to Mary Sara stands her father, Per Nielsen Sara, and her uncle, Per Ante. Picture: Martha Sara Jack

"And I think it's important for me as a historian to say that all the remains, all the brains, need to be returned if possible, [and] treated in the best possible way."

The Post reviewed thousands of documents, including studies, field notes and correspondence from Hrdlicka's papers, and interviewed more than four dozen experts, Smithsonian officials, and descendants and members of affected communities.

The museum's brain collection was assembled by a network of scientists, US Army surgeons and professors, records show.

Officials from prominent institutions in the United States donated human brains to the museum.

The Smithsonian still holds the brains of people from at least 10 foreign countries, including the Philippines, Germany, the Czech Republic and South Africa, records show.

Though top Smithsonian and Natural History Museum officials have long known about the tens of thousands of body parts held by the institution, the full scope of the brain collection has never been publicly disclosed.

Even officials within the museum told The Post they were unaware of its magnitude until informed by reporters.

Bunch said he knew "absolutely nothing" about the brain collection before he became secretary in 2019. He said he learned about it as the institution adopted a policy in 2022 on how to return objects and body parts taken without consent.

In addition to Bunch, several senior Smithsonian officials acknowledged in interviews the racism behind Hrdlicka's work and said the anthropologist left a disturbing legacy that must be addressed.

The Smithsonian is a wide-ranging institution that spans research facilities, 21 museums and the National Zoo.

The National Museum of Natural History, one of its premier attractions, holds the vast majority of the institution's human remains.

The only other Smithsonian museum with body parts is the National Museum of the American Indian, which said it still has 454 remains and has repatriated 617.

As The Post investigated, the Natural History Museum hired two researchers to look into the stewardship and ethical return of body parts and other objects.

It also restricted access to human remains, and shared with The Post plans to relocate the brains.

The brains are housed in a building across from a strip mall in Suitland, in a large room with preserved carcasses of animals from the zoo.

Many anthropologists and historians, as well as families, say they want the Smithsonian to do more, including to provide a commitment to contact anyone who may have a family or cultural interest in the remains.

For some, the collection of brains - the centre of intelligence and personality - is especially sensitive.

"These are deceased human beings," said Samuel J. Redman, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who has written extensively about museum collections of human remains, "and in some cases, this represents the only part of their earthly remains that we know is still around, and an important touchstone to many of these communities."