Monday, August 17, 2020

Responding to the Washington Post's mistaken criticism of Hammond

In this article,"The stench of colonialism mars these bird names. They must be changed" by Gabriel Foley, Jordan Rutter, published online August 4, 2020, the authors write,

"When we name an animal species after the person who first made it known to science, we are effectively honoring that person's contribution. ... Yet these honorific names — known as eponyms — also cast long, dark shadows over our beloved birds and represent colonialism, racism and inequality. It is long overdue that we acknowledge the problem of such names, and it is long overdue that we should change them." They follow that up by claiming, "William Alexander Hammond, once a surgeon general of the United States, asked U.S. soldiers to send him the bodies of indigenous people for comparative anatomy studies"

I sent a letter to the Post that they chose not to publish, so I'm posting it here:

Notwithstanding any validity of Foley and Rutter's argument about bird names, they are factually wrong in stating Army Surgeon General Hammond asked U.S. soldiers to send him bodies of indigenous peoples. Hammond founded the Army Medical Museum as the first federal medical research facility, holding human specimens (including skulls), photographs, and case histories from ill and injured Union soldiers, usually white males. Medicine at the time was unrecognizable to us - there were no ambulances, x-rays, antibiotics, or germ theory. Hammond proposed to produce a Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion and the 6,000-page, fifty-six pound History took twenty-three years to finish. By the 1870s, ethnography and anthropology were growing scientific fields, and the Museum had a pre-existing core of bored Army officers to draw on for donations. As early as 1869, the Smithsonian had proposed "an exchange of specimens which are now in possession of the Army Medical Museum, relative to Indian Archaeology and Anthropology, for specimens relative to human and comparative Anatomy in the Smithsonian Institution." Museum curator JS Billings renewed this exchange in 1884, 20 years after Hammond left Washington. In fact without Hammond and his colleagues, Foley and Rutter's field may have been much slower to develop. An entire book, Ornithologists of the United States Army Medical Corps, was written by EE Hume in 1942. Medicine, anthropology, and ornithology have all evolved since the 1860s, and while 'science never exists in a vacuum' as the authors note, it has to start somewhere.