Morton, Samuel George, 1799-1851

Alternative names
Birth 1799
Death 1851
English, French

Biographical notes:

Samuel George Morton was a physician, naturalist, and anthropologist.

From the description of Papers, 1819-1850. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122489495

From the description of Diary, 1833-[ca. 1837]. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 173465849

From the description of Papers, 1838-1844. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 17270630

From the description of Letter book : Philadelphia, Pa., 1832-1837. (Peking University Library). WorldCat record id: 54747608

Philadelphia physician and natural scientist whose studies linking brain size with intelligence fueled scientific racism in ante-bellum America.

From the description of Samuel G. Morton letter to Prisse d'Avennes [manuscript], 1843 September 10. (University of Virginia). WorldCat record id: 648021101

U.S. physician, anatomist and zoologist.

From the description of Letter, 1845, Aug. 26 : Philadelphia, to Prof. Bailey, West Point. (Duke University). WorldCat record id: 35203657

Philadelphia physician and naturalist.

From the description of ALS : Philadelphia, to John Russell Bartlett, [no year] June 9. (Rosenbach Museum & Library). WorldCat record id: 122489383

From the description of ALS : Philadelphia, to Parker Cleaveland, 1827 June 28. (Rosenbach Museum & Library). WorldCat record id: 122525024

Samuel George Morton (1799-1851, APS 1828) was a physician, anatomy professor, naturalist and physical anthropologist. Morton’s most important medical works include an American edition of John Mackintosh’s respected Principles of Pathology and Practice of Physic, and An Illustrated System of Human Anatomy . His Synopsis of the Organic Remains of the Cretaceous Group of the U.S. was a groundbreaking work in paleontology. But, his Crania Americana established Morton as Antebellum America's foremost craniologist, casting a long shadow over the history of physical anthropology and "race science."

Morton was the son of the Philadelphia merchant, George Morton, and Jane Cummings. He was left fatherless at an early age, and was taken by his mother to be raised in Westchester County, N.Y.. Attending Quaker schools, he was fed a steady diet of natural history and empirical science. He returned to Philadelphia in 1812 after his mother's remarriage to Thomas Rogers, an amateur mineralogist, who encouraged the boy’s early interest in science. Morton’s Quaker education continued first at the Westtown School in Pennsylvania, then at the Friend’s School in Burlington, N.J., headed by a family friend, astronomer and mathematician John Gummere (1784-1845, APS 1814).

In 1815, however, Morton's education was interrupted when he was apprenticed to a merchant in the city. After his mother's death in 1817, Morton broke away from commerce and began to study medicine with the prominent physician Joseph Parrish (1779-1840, APS 1815) at the University of Pennsylvania. He was awarded an M.D. degree in 1820. Support from a wealthy uncle in Ireland allowed Morton to further his medical education at the University of Edinburgh. While at Edinburgh University he also attended the geology lectures of Profesor Robert Jameson, who later taught the young Charles Darwin. Morton graduated from Edinburgh in 1823 with a thesis entitled De corporis dolore .

Morton returned to Philadelphia with sterling credentials as a physician; however, for several years, he struggled to establish himself in the city's tightly-knit medical community. In 1827 he married Rebecca Pearsall of Philadelphia, and they had eight children. Morton built up his practice slowly, becoming a physician to the Philadelphia Almshouse in 1829 and teaching in Joseph Parrish’s Philadelphia Medical Association for Medical Instruction after 1830. From 1839-1843 he served as Professor of Anatomy at Pennsylvania College (later Gettysburg College). During these years Morton affiliated with several of the local scientific and medical organizations. He became an important member of the Philadelphia Association for Medical Instruction, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1820, and the American Philosophical Society in 1828. During this period he also produced his first published works; a medical paper on the use of cornine for treatment of intermittent fevers that appeared in the Philadelphia Journal of Medical and Physical Sciences in 1826 and another in 1834 that recommended fresh air for pulmonary consumption. In 1836 Morton prepared the first American edition of John Mackintosh’s authoritative Principles of Pathology and Practice of Physic .

Outside medicine, Morton built a substantial reputation as an adept natural historian. Joseph Parrish’s assistant the naturalist and anatomist Richard Harlan, who got Morton elected to the Academy of Natural Science, directed his scientific research. His earliest research projects in the late 1820s and 1830s, are epitomized by his well-regarded study of the fossils collected by Lewis and Clark, Synopsis of the Organic Remains of the Cretaceous Group of the United States (1834). While his interests centered on the then-chic fields of geology and paleontology, he soon shifted his focus to anthropology.

In 1830 Morton began to collect human craniums, later accumulating over 1,000. He began to take a deep interest in racial science, and his groundbreaking work in craniology and craniometry proved to be the most enduring of his scientific contributions. The prominence of phrenology in Philadelphia scientific circles, reflected in the work of Charles Caldwell and others, quickened Morton's interests in the measurement of skulls as a means of identifying and comparing the intellectual capacities and "character" of the races. He was never a field anthropologist. Rather, he depended entirely upon scientific colleagues such as Marmaduke Burrough (1767-1844, APS 1833) and Ephraim George Squier, as well as merchants, missionaries, and members of the military for specimens, eventually assembling the largest collection of skulls in North America. These became the basis of his painstaking, statistical comparisons of human populations. His skull collection was eventually donated to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and is documented in the exhaustive Catalogue of Skulls of Man, and the Inferior Animals, in the Collection of Samuel George Morton (1840).

The first fruits of Morton's research were published as Crania Americana, or, a Comparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South America (1839), a work which sought to corroborate the five-fold racial division of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840, APS 1798). Based upon his estimates of cranial volume, Morton concluded that the American Indians from Canada to Patagonia were descended from a common stock (i.e., were monophyletic) that was clearly distinct from the races of the Old World. He argued forcefully against the theory that environment contributed to race formation. More importantly for the subsequent history of racial science, Morton claimed to have demonstrated the presence of significant differences in cranial capacity -- and therefore intelligence -- among the races, with "Mongolians" and Caucasians heading the list, and "Americans" and "Ethiopians" at the bottom of the hierarchy.

In his second major work in the field, Crania Aegyptiaca, or, Observations on Egyptian Ethnography, Derived from Anatomy, History, and the Monuments (1844), Morton took his reasoning further. Comparing skulls obtained by George R. Gliddon from archaeological sites in Egypt, he deduced that racial distinctions were as prominent 6,000 years ago as they were in 1840. The elite of Ancient Egypt, he argued, were Caucasians, and while "Negroes" were abundant, "their social position, in ancient times was the same as it now is; that of servants or slaves." In essence, Morton argued for the polygenic origins of humanity and the inexpungibility of racial distinctions.

Morton's work on craniology met with a receptive audience in much of the United States. The country’s scientific elite such as Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz lauded its massive empirical base. The implications of his theories for human relations were endorsed avidly by pro-slavery advocates. His most zealous supporters were George R. Gliddon and the Alabama physician, Josiah Nott, who developed his own, highly elaborated polygenic theory as an apologetic for slavery. However, support for Morton's conclusions did not align easily with such sentiments. The apparent conflict of Morton's work with the theory of unitary origins presented in the book of Genesis proved unpalatable to many religiously-inclined scientists, including those who defended slavery on other grounds. Prominent among his detractors was the South Carolinian, John Bachman, a Lutheran minister and natural historian, who was no opponent of slavery. Bachman argued that the interfertility of Africans and Caucasians proved the Doctrine of the Unity of the Human Race (1850). Morton responded to such claims with an investigation into the hybridization in plants and animals that appeared in Silliman’s American Journal of Science and Arts (1847). Perhaps more importantly, he seems to have avoided addressing the social implications of his craniology.

Morton, who suffered ill health for much of his life, had an attack of pleurisy in 1848 that seriously weakened his heart and lungs. Three years later he died. It was reported that before his illness Morton had planned a work on the "Elements of Ethnology"; however, he died before he could begin the new work. Friends remarked on his modesty, courtesy and “gentleness of manner.” Morton was survived by his wife Rebecca and all of his eight children.

From the guide to the Samuel George Morton Papers, 1819-1850, (American Philosophical Society)

Samuel George Morton

Samuel George Morton (1799-1851) was a physician and natural scientist whose work focused on the craniometric studies of humans, from which he derived conclusions regarding the relative intellectual capacities of the “five races.” His work had a profound influence on the development of physical anthropology in antebellum America. He also made contributions in the fields of geology, mineralogy, paleontology, and natural history.

Samuel George Morton was born on January 26, 1799 in Philadelphia to George and Jane Cummings Morton. His father, George, was an Irish immigrant and a merchant in Philadelphia and died on July 27, 1799 when Morton was six months old. Following his father’s death, Morton’s mother moved the family to West Farms, New York in order to live closer to her sister. Morton was educated at the Schools of West Farms until his mother married Thomas Rogers and the family returned to Philadelphia. Morton then attended the Friends School at West Town in Chester County, Pennsylvania. In 1813, he transferred to a Friends School in Burlington, New Jersey where he studied the mathematical sciences under John Gummere. In 1814, he began working in a merchant’s counting house, but “his heart was not in his business; and though there is no reason to believe that he neglected the duties of his position, he devoted most of his leisure hours to reading, and have his thoughts rather to history, poetry, and other branches of polite literature than to mercantile accomplishment,” (Wood, page 6). His mother died in 1817 and he decided to become a physician. This decision is said to have been based upon “reading Dr. Rush’s sixteen Introductory Lectures,” (Meigs, page 12) and observing the “frequent attendance of physicians [during his mother’s illness, including] several of the most distinguished practitioners of Philadelphia,” (Wood, page 6). Morton began his education under the direction of Dr. Joseph Parrish and studied at the University of Pennsylvania, earning his degree of Doctor of Medicine in 1820. Following his graduation, Morton traveled to Ireland to meet his paternal relatives, attended classes at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and traveled throughout Europe. He graduated from the University of Edinburgh, 1823.

In 1824, Morton returned to Philadelphia and began practicing medicine. In addition to his medical practice, Morton also renewed a lifelong interest in the natural sciences with his involvement with the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. He began writing scholarly articles on the subjects of both natural sciences and medicine. His medical practice grew over time and he became a physician at the Philadelphia Almshouse Hospital in 1829 and a medical teacher in 1830, eventually becoming a professor of anatomy at the Pennsylvania Medical College from 1839 to 1843. In 1840, he was elected one of the Vice Presidents of the Academy of Natural Sciences and in 1849, he was elected President, a position he held until his death. He was also elected to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia in 1845.

According to the American Philosophical Society, “beginning prior to 1834, Morton began to take a deep interest in the quintessentially American enterprise of racial science, and his groundbreaking work in craniology and craniometry proved to be the most enduring of his scientific contributions.” In the study of these fields, Morton collected human and animal skulls which fueled his “interests in the measurement of skulls as a means of identifying and comparing the intellectual capacities and ‘character’ of the races,” (American Philosophical Society). He published Crania Americana in 1839 and An Inquiry into the Distinctive Characteristics of the Aboriginal Race of America and Crania Aegyptiaca in 1844. In his writings, “for the subsequent history of racial science, Morton argued that he had demonstrated the presence of significant differences in cranial capacity-and therefore, intelligence-among the races, with ‘Mongolians’ and Caucasians heading the list, and ‘Americans’ and ‘Ethiopians’ bringing up the rear,” (American Philosophical Society). Largely, the population of the United States approved of Morton’s scientific studies, especially “pro-slavery advocates [and] Gliddon and the Alabama physician, Josiah Nott, who developed his own, highly elaborated polygenic theory as an apologetic for slavery,” (American Philosophical Society). Among those who did not support Morton’s views were those who felt that his assertions contradicted the Book of Genesis.

Morton married Rebecca Pearsall, daughter of Robert and Elizabeth Pearsall, on October 23, 1827. They had eight children. He died on May 15, 1851, following several illnesses including “severe pleurisy and pericarditis,” (Wood, p. 16). He was survived by his widow and seven children. Soon after his death, he was remembered as “modest in his demeanor, of no arrogant pretensions, and of a forgiving temper; charitable and respectful to others, yet never forgetful of self-respect,” (Meigs, page 48).

James St. Clair Morton

James St. Clair Morton, son of Samuel George Morton and Rebecca Pearsall, was a Union engineer during the Civil War. He engineered Fort Negley in Nashville, Tennessee and was killed just before the Battle of Petersburg on June 17, 1864.

Morton was born on September 24, 1828 in Philadelphia. He enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania at the age of 14 and then was accepted into the United States Military Academy at West Point where he graduated second in his class of forty-two in 1851. Prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, Morton worked on the construction of fortifications for the Corps of Engineers at Fort Sumter, Fort Jefferson and Fort Delaware. From 1855 to 1857, he taught mathematics and military engineering as an assistant professor at West Point. The Treasury Department then appointed him engineer and superintendent of the New York light-house district, at which point he wrote several “memoirs” regarding the defense of New York City. He served as chief engineer for the Sandy Hook lighthouse in New Jersey and was then “selected by the Department of the Interior as chief engineer of the Potomac Water-Works and charged with the duty of superintending the finished portion of the Washington Aqueduct,” ( Annals of the Army of the Cumberland, page 181). The Navy Department, in 1860, assigned Morton to “lead an expedition to Central America to explore the Chiriquí area for construction of a railroad or canal,” (West) through the isthmus. During this trip, Morton first contracted malaria which affected him from time to time until May 1862 when he was assigned Chief Engineer of General Don C. Buell’s Army of the Ohio.

From June to October 1862, Morton was “busily engaged in superintending the building of bridges, stockades and other defenses upon railroads and pikes between Nashville and Huntsville,” ( Annals of the Army of the Cumberland, page 182). After October, he designed and oversaw the building of Fort Negley: “the complex work of polygonal shape [and] the largest inland masonry fortification of the Civil War,” (BONPS). According to John Fitch, provost judge of the Army of the Cumberland, “he pushed forward their construction most vigorously, employing the soldiery, and ‘pressing’ the negroes of Nashville and vicinity, and teams of all kinds, without stint or scruple. The colored population of that city have probably not yet forgotten the suddenness with which his men gathered them in from barber-shops, kitchens, and even churches, and set them at work upon St. Cloud Hill, where was then a combination of rock and forest, but where now rise the frowning battlements of Fort Negley, commanding the entire city and surrounding country,” (West).

General Buell was replaced by Major General William S. Rosecrans, and Rosecrans quickly created a new regiment, the Pioneer Brigade, which Morton, promoted to brigadier general of volunteers, commanded. This regiment built bridges, roads and fortifications and repaired railroads. From January to June 1863, Morton built and supervised construction of Fortress Rosecrans. According to West, after the Union’s defeat at Chickamauga on September 19 and 20, 1863, “Morton and his Pioneer Brigade were criticized by major General Alexander McCook for being non-responsive and generally for being in the way,” and Morton first requested a transfer and when that was rejected, “made the rare request that his rank be reduced from brigadier general of volunteers to his Regular Army rank of major of engineers,” (West).

In May 1864, he served as General Ambrose Burnsides’ IX Corps chief engineer at Petersburg, Virginia. David Callihan writes that on June 17, 1864, Morton was “mortally wounded in the chest while performing reconnaissance work at Petersburg preparatory to a Union assault that day” (Callihan, page 49) at the age of 34. Morton’s “principal characteristic … is his indomitable energy, coupled with extensive information and practical experience,” ( Annals of the Army of the Cumberland, page 183).


American Philosophical Society. Samuel George Morton Papers, 1819-1850, Mss.B.M843, Background Note.

An Officer. Annals of the Army of the Cumberland . Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1864.

Battle of Nashville Preservation Society, Inc. “Brief History of the Fort.” (accessed April 23, 2010).

Callihan, David L. They Did Their Work Bravely: Civil War Generals Buried in Pennsylvania . Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, Inc., 2004.

Meigs, Charles D., M.D. A Memoir of Samuel George Morton, M.D., Late President of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia . Philadelphia: T.K. and P.G. Collins, Printers, 1851.

West, Mike. “Fabulous military career cut short,” Murfreesboro Post, May 25, 2008.

Wood, George B., M.D. A Biographical Memoir of Samuel George Morton, M.D. Philadelphia: T.K. and P.G. Collins, 1853.

From the guide to the Samuel George Morton papers, 1832-1862, (Library Company of Philadelphia)


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