Family unaware of relative’s brain held at the Smithsonian
By Sydney Umstead, News Editor
After a year spent investigating the Smithsonian Museum, The Washington Post published the final work on Aug. 17, 2023. The report found that the museum has housed human remains since 1908, and the primary concern raised by their discovery was that family members were not informed that the Smithsonian was in possession of their loved ones’ remains.
As reported by The Washington Post in their article “Smithsonian returns woman’s brain to family,” the brain of Sámi woman Mary Sara had been stored in the Smithsonian for 90 years after being taken for “racial brain collection” and given to “the curator of the division of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian, Ales Hrdlicka.”
During the investigation, there was no evidence found relating to the consent of the family for Sara’s brain to be studied.
An employee at the Smithosian had brought the brain back to the family on Aug. 28, after which they held a ceremony for Sara as her brain was placed in a burial spot near the top of her grave. One relative, Rachel Twitchell-Justiss, was quoted telling The Post, “I said, ‘I’m so sorry this happened to you and we’re going to take care of you now,’” when asked what she had whispered to the grave of Sara.
Sara’s story is one of many correlating to practices of Hrdlicka during the 20th century. The Post’s investigation found “at least 30,700 human remains still kept by the museum, the majority of which appear to have been taken without consent.” There were a total of 255 brains found in the search.
In response to this, Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian, published an opinion article in The Post on Aug. 20 apologizing for the situation and dubbing it the museum's “darkest history.”
According to the Smithsonian, Sara had passed from tuberculosis at age 18, and her doctor, Charles Firestone, is the one who offered her brain to Hrdlicka. Firestone would later go on to perform eye surgery on Sara’s mother.
As of 2022, the Smithsonian instituted a policy in order to return items and remains that were received by the museum without consent. However, there are still 21 museums in the Smithsonian’s name, including the national zoo.