Henry-Fairfield-Obsorn-John West.
Photo: Bust of Henry Fairfield Obsorn, AMNH, by John West.
John G. West Political Scientist and Cultural Critic

American Museum of Natural History Cancels Teddy Roosevelt; Keeps Bust of Racist Director?

Published at Evolution News

Last month, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City requested removal of an iconic statue of Teddy Roosevelt on horseback displayed outside the museum since 1940. 

Lost in the controversy over Roosevelt, however, was the fact that within its doors, the museum honors a far more disturbing individual.

That individual is Henry Fairfield Obsorn (1857-1935), the AMNH’s president for 25 years. As discussed in my documentary Human Zoos, Osborn was one of America’s most prominent proponents of evolution in the first half of the 20th century. He served as a professor of zoology at Columbia University and as head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

Champion of Eugenics

Osborn was also a scientific racist who championed eugenics, the horrific crusade to breed a superior human race based on the principles of Darwinian biology. Osborn even arranged for the American Museum of Natural History to host two international congresses on eugenics, as well as to accompany the meetings with large museum exhibits extolling eugenics and disparaging non-white races.

In a speech to fellow eugenists in 1921, Osborn attacked racial intermarriage, declaring that 

500,000 years of human evolution, under widely different environmental conditions, have impressed certain distinctive virtues as well as faults on each race. In the matter of racial virtues, my opinion is that from biologial principles there is little promise in the “melting pot” theory. Put three races together, you are as likely to unite the vices of all three as the virtues.

Arguing that racial groups should be studied to determine what tasks “each race is best fitted to accomplish,” Osborn was pretty clear that he already knew the proper place of non-whites in society, especially blacks. In his words, “If the Negro fails in government, he may become a fine agriculturalist or a fine mechanic.” (“Address of Welcome,” Scientific Papers of the Second International Congress of Eugenics, 2-3)

In an article on human evolution in 1926, Osborn asserted that “the standard of intelligence of the average adult Negro is similar to that of the eleven-year-old youth of the species Homo sapiens.” (“The Evolution of Human Races,” Natural History, Jan-Feb 1926, 5) 

A Toxic Legacy

Despite Osborn’s toxic legacy of scientific racism, the American Museum of Natural History for decades has continued to honor him with a bust and a wall inscription. The wall inscription proclaims that “Under his leadership the museum attained great eminence in science and education.” When I visited the museum in the spring of 2019, both the bust and wall inscription were still on display.

However, the two displays were now disconnected. Originally, the bust of Osborn was located directly beneath the wall inscription. But sometime in the past few years, the AMNH moved the bust of Osborn to another room so it is no longer near the wall inscription. The bust now stands alone without any label telling who the person is. Perhaps someone at the museum was embarrassed enough about their longtime previous director to try to hide him in plain sight? The wall inscription, by contrast, remains where it has always been, with no bust beneath it.

No Response to an Inquiry

This week I asked the museum’s press office about whether they planned to remove the bust and wall inscription. Thus far, they have failed to respond.

To be clear, I generally don’t favor removing old statues. I prefer using them as an occasion for learning about the past. In the case of Osborn, I’d suggest that the museum create an exhibit that exposes and explores Osborn’s embrace of Darwinian racism and eugenics and his role in getting the museum to promote those ideas. Let people know about the past. Don’t pretend it didn’t happened, and don’t sweep it under the rug.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.
Discovery Institute