Saturday, April 5, 2014

* Nine Jars at Yale's Peabody Museum,circa 1952



(L-R) Geronimo; Prescott Bush,
 the Yale thief who stole Geronimo's skull as a prank,
later U. S. Senator from Connecticut
and sire of George H.W.,
grandsire of W.

LINK to original Yale Daily News article: Through the Lens: Peabody

Science Student  • 3 days ago  

Vertebrate Zoology has some incredible collections -- as do most divisions of the Peabody. A special favorite of mine are the fossils of O. C. Marsh, one of the most important paleontologists of all time. His life was controversial, and for good reason -- but Marsh discovered Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Torosaurus, Apatosaurus, Allosaurus and more. We've got all the type specimens right here at Yale!

theantiyale  • 5 days ago  

As a school aged child I was brought to the Peabody and saw with my own eyes nine formaldehyde-filled jars each containing a developing human fetus. I'll bet this display has disappeared and will never be admitted to having existed at all. I was born in 1944 so you can approximate the dates of the exhibit from that year onward through school-age.

Science Student to theantiyale  • 3 days ago  

Dear Mr. Keane,

I work at the Peabody as a student assistant, and thought I'd try to address your comment. I work in Vertebrate Paleontology, so human fetuses are quite literally "not my department" -- but I did some searching to see what I could find.

 The Peabody keeps a database of all the specimens it contains, and it does list a number of human remains. All of these, however, are osteological -- which makes sense, in light of the Peabody's collection structure. We tend to preserve mammals as skins or skeletons -- not in jars of formaldehyde. Our liquid-preserved specimens tend to be fish or amphibians.

 Preserved fetuses don't sound like the Peabody's usual fare, and there are certainly none in our collections database. Perhaps the ones you saw were a temporary exhibit from another institution? Or perhaps they were from the medical school, which I know has some human specimens? Maybe you'd be interested in this article:

 Whether or not there were fetuses on display, your post raises valid questions about museum ethics. Like any powerful institutions, museums DO sometimes behave in highly-questionable ways. The Peabody itself has a fairly checkered history, largely due to its founder O. C. Marsh.

 Marsh was one of the greatest paleontologists of all time, and the discoverer of hundreds of fossil species. But he was also a combative, difficult man whose rivalry with E. D. Cope led him into an academic feud. In the course of their battles, Cope and Marsh slandered each other in the press, destroyed and stole fossils, etc.

 Furthermore, Marsh was a grave-robber. During his fossil hunts out west (in the 1870s-1880s) he disinterred the remains of a number of Native Americans, bringing back their bones for the Peabody's collections. Even at the time, this spurred outrage -- as contemporary newspaper articles prove.

 Ethical issues aren't unique to the Peabody, either. Plenty of museums contain (or once contained) stolen artifacts, unearthed bones, and human specimens of questionable provenance. This is a particular issue for older museums, as scientific ethics have changed greatly over the years.

 I feel, though, that the past actions of museums matter far less than their current behavior. Museums offer incredible resources to their patrons, volunteers, employees and visiting researchers. These days, most of them (including the Peabody) operate on strict ethical principles, and would be horrified at the deeds of O. C. Marsh. Some museums have even reburied specimens in atonement for their past actions.

 The modern Peabody is not Marsh's museum -- or even the museum of sixty years ago. It's a source of incredible scientific research, and a depository for some truly incredible collections. I grew to love the place as a student even before I started working there -- and it's a job I'm proud to have. I hope that you -- and other readers -- aren't put off by what the Peabody once was. Many institutions have a checkered past, but this one is working toward a bright future!

 Please let me know if you have other questions, and thanks for reading!

theantiyale to Science Student  • a day ago  

How fascinating. Perhaps it was the med school. At the time I was 8 or 9 and my mother was showing my horrified little eyes (I was fascinated AND horrified) what was in the bottles. I didn't quite know what the facts of life were ( remember this was 1952 when I was 8).

 I DID know that my mother had had two miscarriages before I was born. And now, that I am an old man, I wonder if any of those fetuses were my siblings (odd thought, but you know doctors didn't tell their patients what happened to the miscarriages in those days. No documents or authorizations were signed).

 It is ironic that two blocks from the Peabody at that time, Roman Catholics were conducting all-night vigils saying the Rosary in front of Planned Parenthood on Orange Street as Griswold v State of Connecticut was about to emerge and make its way through the courts,

 I made these remarks in a post on YDN and a letter to the head of the Peabody a few years ago (I'm sure he brushed it off as many at Yale brush off the feelings of town folk) and never had the courtesy of a reply, so your long courteous and fascinating history here is welcome for more than one reason.

 It sounds as if O.C. Marsh and Prescott Bush (a Skull and Bonser , later Connecticut's U.S. Senator and father of Geo H.W. and grandfather of W) were both busy stealing bodies while at Yale: (Prescott stole Geronimo's skull for his secret society), Dubious desecration.

 I only today--after years of posting --- learned that there is a way to access on the YDN posting board those who reply to my posts.

 Many thanks for your serious reply.



Science Student to theantiyale  • 16 hours ago  

Hi, Mr. Keane, and thanks for your reply!

 Just wanted to comment on your attempted communication with Dr. Briggs. I'm sorry he never replied (I know he's very busy with renovations) -- but I'm not sure if he'd be able to answer your questions. In 1952, the Peabody's director was Carl Owen Dunbar -- who passed away several decades ago. The public portions of the museum's archives (in which I've worked) don't contain much information on past exhibits; it's unlikely a current employee would know about 1952 displays.

 If you're interested, you might try contacting the Museum's archives. If there's information on old displays anywhere, it ought to be there -- plus the archivists are more used do dealing with this kind of inquiry. The med school might also have information for you. If the Peabody ever displayed fetuses, they'd have to come from somewhere -- and the medical school would have better access.

 As to the origins of the fetuses you remember... I hesitate to speculate. If they were preserved in jars, they could have been around for years -- so there's no way to know when they were collected. If such an exhibit existed, I'm not surprised it was long ago -- medical ethics have changed much in the past decades.

 It was in the early fifties, if I remember correctly, that the cancerous cells of Henrietta Lacks were cultured without consent. Her "HeLa" cell line contributed greatly to medical research, and without a doubt saved many lives . But still, Mrs. Lacks' case shows much about the treatment of patients at the time. Not all doctors (or scientists) felt the need to obtain samples by request.

 Of course, this has changed much over the years, and informed consent is a critical part of modern medical ethics. These days, displayed fetuses are generally donated after stillbirth -- but as you said, that wasn't always the case. Given the timeframe of this story, what you suggest is certainly possible -- though I don't think that the modern Peabody (or medical school) would do such a thing.

Thanks for reading, and let me know if you have other questions! I'd be happy to find you some contact information if you're interested in talking to someone about this.

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