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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Department of Anthropology

Mexican masks in storage

The Robert J. Terry Anatomical Skeletal Collection

Accessions:  100714 (1927); 279804 (1967)

Robert J. Terry (1871-1966) was professor of anatomy and head of the Anatomy Department at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis, Missouri from 1899 until his retirement in 1941. He was keenly interested in human anatomy and particularly in normal and pathological variants in the skeleton. He was aware that there was an absence of documented human osteological/anatomical specimens from which skeletal biology, anatomy and pathology could be investigated. This awareness was kindled in 1893 by one of his educational mentors, Dr. George S. Huntington, at the College of Physician and Surgeons, New York. Dr. Huntington was a strong proponent for saving skeletons from the documented human cadavers from the Medical School for skeletal biological research. His influence can be seen not only in Dr. Terry, but also in Dr. T. Wingate Todd, who amassed the Cleveland Natural History Museum's Hamann-Todd Anatomical collection from cadavers from the Western Reserve University Medical School, and in Dr. Aleš Hrdlicka, at the Smithsonian Institution, who spent most of his career collecting human skeletons from around the world, and who preserved Dr. Huntington's skeletal collection of over 3800 individuals after Huntington's death in 1927.

In the second decade of the 20th century, Dr. Terry began to collect human skeletons from cadavers used in the Medical School's Anatomy classes. These bodies were primarily obtained from local St. Louis hospital and institutional morgues. There was also a small portion of the cadavers that were collected from other institutions throughout the state of Missouri. The cadavers predominantly consisted of individuals whose bodies became property of the state when they were not claimed, or whose relatives signed over the remains to the state. The bodies were subsequently turned over to the Medical School for cadaver research. After the passage of the Willed Body Law of Missouri in 1955-6, it was required to have a signed release document from the individual or their immediate family to be able to use the body for scientific purposes. This certainly changed the demographic complexion of cadavers coming to the Medical School. The early part of the collection is predominantly composed of people of lower incomes, but the latter component of the collection comes from middle or upper middle incomes.

By the early 1920s, Dr. Terry established a uniform protocol for the collecting, cataloging, maceration and storage of the collection. Cadavers slated for the osteological collection were used for soft tissue dissection only in the Anatomy classes. This was to preserve the bones in their whole state. In some cases the calvarium was cut for brain dissection and in fewer cases the cranium was sagittally sectioned. In the postcrania, generally only the ribs and possibly sternum were cut for access to the internal organs. There were a few cases where vertebral bodies were sampled for histological examination.

Maceration consisted of stripping the bone of as much of the tissue as possible without damage, soaking the skeleton in hot water for 72 hours, brushing, and then drying the bone. Degreasing of the bone was accomplished by exposure to benzene vapors for a period of time to remove some of the fats. Dr. Terry was explicit in that he did not want the bone void of fats. He felt the bone would preserve better with some fats still present. The long-term preservation of this heavily studied collection shows that Dr. Terry's foresight was correct.

Documentation of the individual consists of morgue records with the name of the individual, the sex, age and ethnic identity, cause of death, date of death, morgue or institution of origin, permit number, and various dates and records related to embalming or body preservation processes. The skeletal inventory indicated damaged or absent bones for each individual and sometimes included biological age estimated from morphological traits of cranial sutures, pubic symphyses, bone texture, and arthritic lipping. Pathological and normal osteological variants observed during the autopsy were generally recorded on the bone inventory list. The bone inventory was completed after the maceration process. The dentition was charted for most individuals. Approximately 60-65% of the collection include anthropometric measurements of the cadaver, photographs or photo negatives. There are also just over 800 plaster death masks made of the cadavers prior to maceration. Hair and skin samples were also retrieved from a portion of the collection. There are just over 1050 hair samples curated with the collection. The skin samples were discarded in the 1960s when renovations to the Anatomy Department Building required the demolition of the Cold Room where these tissue samples were stored.

When Dr. Terry retired in 1941, another well known skeletal biologist, Dr. Mildred Trotter (1899-1991) took over Dr. Terry's position as anatomy instructor and diligently continued collecting skeletons until her retirement in 1967. It is Dr. Trotter we can thank for her efforts in balancing the demography of the collection. Her collecting focussed on younger individuals, especially white females, who were under-represented. In Dr. Trotter's collecting, the majority of these individuals were willed, and some individuals had written personal and medical histories. Only a few of these histories still survive in the records. Although it is hard to estimate the total number of skeletons processed over the years, at the termination of the project, somewhere in the range of 2000 documented skeletons still existed.

In the 1950s and 1960s the Anatomy Department began to change the focus of its research to brain morphology and function. With the decreased interest in continuing support of the Terry Collection, and anticipating her retirement, Dr. Trotter began correspondence with her long-time friend Dr. T. Dale Stewart concerning the possibility of transferring the collection to the Smithsonian Institution for permanent curation. In 1967 this transaction was made between the Anatomy Department at Washington University Medical School and the National Museum of Natural History's Anthropology Department. Thus the collection came to Washington, D.C. In the exchange, the NMNH Anthropology Department also received Dr. Trotter's collection of burnt bone from her studies on bone ash weight as well as her collection of hair samples from her studies on hair morphology and identification.

The Terry collection presently consists of 1728 specimens of known age, sex, ethnic origin, cause of death and pathological conditions. File records contain individuals morgue records, anthropometric measurements, dental charts, bone inventories and autopsy reports. Associated photographs, plaster death masks and hair samples are correlated by the individual number.

The demographic distribution is:

  • 461 White Males
  • 546 Black Males
  • 323 White Females
  • 392 Black Females
  • 5 Asiatic Males
  • 1 Unknown Origin

Age at death ranges from 16 years to 102 years, and date of birth from 1822 to 1943. The the highest percentage of individuals being 45 or older. There are representative numbers of younger age ranges for all groups except for a deficiency in young White Females under 27 years. Included in the Black sample are six South African Basutu donated by Dr. Raymond Dart in 1927 to Dr. Terry for the collection.

Based on the information from the morgue records, distribution of the collection by age decade is as follows:

 Age
0-20
21-30
31-40
41-50
51-60
61-70
71-80
81-90
91-100
101-110
 B Males
20 83 114 104 110 70 30 8 2 0
 W Males
7 10 30 77 107 129 80 15 0 0
 B Females
21 53 61 66 58 52 45 17 6 2
 W Females
13 7 11 29 56 80 6 42 4 0

 

In the skeletal inventory, damaged or absent bones, pathological and normal osteological variants are defined. Approximately 60% of the collection has associated anthropometric measurements and cadaver photographs. There are 836 plaster death masks and 1078 hair samples curated with the collection.

Dr. Terry shared some of his skeletal collections with other institutions. He donated 6 complete individuals to W. W. Howells, which are now part of the collections at the Peabody Museum, Harvard University. A sample set of 13 crania were sent to Aleš Hrdlicka and added to the NMNH collections in 1927, and an assortment were sent to Dr. Dart at Witwatersrand, South Africa.

A small assortment of remnant osteological materials deriving from Drs. Terry and Trotter's collecting are found in the Osteology Laboratory of the Anthropology Department at Washington University. These are specimens which were removed from the collection due to their incomplete nature or less than perfect preservation. They were replaced by other specimens in the collection and these replacements are denoted by the R suffix on the individual numbers of the collection. The records for the removed specimens are stored in the Morgue in the Anatomy Department.

Receipt of Transfer, Death Certificate copies, anatomical catalog cards and collection records related to the skeletal collection, and Dr. Terry's as well as Dr. Trotter's activities in the Anatomy Department and correspondence, are housed in the Medical Archives, the Anatomy Department's office files, or in the Anatomy Department Morgue at Washington University Medical School.

 

Dr. David R.  Hunt
Museum Specialist in Physical Anthropology
Department of Anthropology
National Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian Institution

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