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Frederick Starr: Anthropologist Lost from the History Books

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You probably haven’t heard of Frederick Starr. Like his contemporary Franz Boas, Starr was an anthropologist coming to fame while the discipline of anthropology was still being formed. Throughout his career, Starr studied people and cultures on three different continents, and still found time to make a name for himself as a lecturer at the University of Chicago. But unlike Boas—who is considered the father of American Anthropology—you won’t find Starr’s name in many textbooks. The tale of how Frederick Starr was nearly forgotten is one full of controversy and ideology.

Starr’s Early Life and Career

Frederick Starr was born in 1858 in Auburn, New York, to the Reverend Frederick Starr Jr. and Helen Mills Starr. As a child, Starr was a strong student and an avid collector of fossils and minerals. He explored that interest further at the University of Rochester, where he studied geology; two years later, he transferred to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and graduated in 1882. He received a doctorate in geology from Lafayette College in 1885.

In the late 1800s, anthropology was still a new and growing discipline, so Starr didn't study it formally. It wasn’t until after his schooling, while teaching at Coe College, that Starr discovered his interest in the subject. He conducted both ethnographic and archaeological fieldwork among the local Sauk and Fox Indian tribes and reputedly taught the first anthropology course in Iowa while at Coe. It's not clear who or what specifically spurred Starr’s interest in anthropology, but he pursued it avidly, leaving his studies of geology behind. Following his work at Coe College, Starr held several short-term positions, including working with the ethnological collection at the American Museum of Natural History, before finally accepting a long-term faculty position at the University of Chicago in 1892.

During his time at the University of Chicago, Starr became a very influential public speaker, frequently giving lectures on anthropological subjects that were open to the public through the University’s extension program. After attending an extension course about prehistoric and primitive art, W.R. French, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago at the time, wrote that Starr’s lectures were “both authoritative and agreeable,” and that “Professor Starr has eminently the art of making scientific truth interesting to intelligent but unprofessional academics.”

An Anthropologist is Born

According to Donald McVicker, author of Frederick Starr: Popularizer of Anthropology, Public Intellectual, and Genuine Eccentric, Starr engaged in an incredibly varied anthropological career at the turn of the 20th century. He conducted notable research in Mexico, among many Native American tribes in the United States, with the Ainu people of Japan, and in several regions of Africa.

The World’s Fairs that took place in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries seemed to provide Starr with the perfect opportunities to put his work on display. Much to his dismay, however, Starr was not allowed an influential position at the famous World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. He was excluded by better known anthropologists like Boas and Frederic Ward Putnam, director of Harvard’s Peabody Museum. Starr was commissioned to collect data about and artifacts from the Eastern Cherokee people in North Carolina for Putnam and Boas, but contributed little else to this fair.

At the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904, however, Starr’s work made a much bigger splash. The anthropologist brought nine Ainu people and a translator back with him from Japan to be part of an exhibit at the fair. These Ainu, members of a Japanese indigenous group from Hokkaido in the northern part of the country, were to be displayed as part of a literal representation of the evolutionary stages of humanity towards civilization; along with several other indigenous groups assembled by other anthropologists, they were on display as “barbarous and semi-barbarous peoples.” While this is unquestionably offensive to today's sensibilities, the visitor response to the exhibit at the time was overwhelmingly positive, as most people had never before heard of the Ainu and were intrigued by their appearance and practices. In a 1993 article about the Ainu exhibit, anthropologist James W. Vanstone reports the reactions from writers and visitors to the exhibit:

One enthusiastic writer referred to the Ainu as "mysterious little Japanese primitives" and noted that visitors were impressed by their cleanliness and polite manners, but somewhat disappointed that they were no "man-eaters, dog-eaters or wild men."

In addition to contributing to these World’s Fairs, Starr produced several publications in conjunction with his fieldwork. These publications included many scholarly and other articles, as well as books like The Truth about the Congo, about his studies in that region; Indians of Southern Mexico: An Ethnographic Album; and In Indian Mexico: A Narrative of Travel and Labor, about the performance and findings of his extensive work with Indian tribes in Mexico.

Starr’s Methods and Misconduct in Mexico

His appearance in St. Louis with the Ainu may have been Starr’s most publicly recognized work, but if he is remembered at all today, it's for his fieldwork in Mexico. Starr recalls his purpose there in In Indian Mexico:

The work I planned to do among these indian towns was threefold: 1. The measurement of one hundred men and twenty-five women in each population, fourteen measurements being taken upon each subject; 2. The making of pictures,—portraits, dress, occupations, customs, buildings, and landscapes; 3. The making of plaster busts of five individuals in each tribe.

The primary goals in making such recordings were to observe the differences between various Mexican tribes and to establish the placement of such people, and their race and culture, on the same scale that he had placed the Ainu, from barbarous to civilized. It was assumed at the time that there were physical characteristics, such as cranial shape and size, that could mark such distinctions between races (a theory that has long since been disproved).

In his book, Starr refers to the Mexican people he is studying as “ignorant, timid, and suspicious.” He also makes regular references to them being too drunk to allow their measurements to be taken. All of these characteristics assigned to these Mexican Indians by Starr explained, in his point of view, the difficulty he often had in securing subjects for measurement, and justified the forceful methods he felt compelled to use. Starr took advantage of the fact that prisoners could not refuse his requests to measure them, and regularly photographed and measured imprisoned subjects for his work. What’s more, if there were individuals he wished to measure who did not acquiesce, he would threaten them with arrest and jail time so that they could no longer refuse. The authorities did not object to these methods, instead providing support for Starr by collecting subjects and keeping order. Starr even recounts a specific incident where policemen stopped a bullfight in progress in order to obtain a young man taking part in the fight for Starr’s research.

Starr Fading from View

Over time, Starr’s brutish, unethical methods and offensive ideas became questionable in the eyes of the anthropological community. The theories of his contemporary Boas, however, began to amass a great deal of support from other anthropologists and academics.

Boas, born and educated in Germany, moved to the United States in 1887 and proceeded to make substantial contributions to the methodology of American anthropology. By incorporating the methods of natural science into the discipline of anthropology, Boas emphasized the importance of conducting research before developing theories, as well as approaching studies in the most ethical and unbiased ways possible. What’s more, he developed the modern interpretation of culture, viewing it as learned behavior and a product of a people's history, rather than a hierarchical measurement of civilization that would place the western world on top.

While most anthropologists, inspired by Boas, began to recognize the people they studied as part of the larger, equal human race, Starr continued to regard them as primitive and inferior, demonstrated by his attitude towards his subjects in Mexico. Soon, Starr’s methods of fieldwork were widely considered unethical and his ideas about culture outdated.

Starr’s charisma and ability as a speaker managed to keep him relevant in public education spheres toward the end of his career. In this capacity, Starr overshadowed Boas, who preferred not to address the general themes of anthropology necessary in public lecturing and was nervous about his skill in speaking English, which was not his first language. The academic discipline of anthropology, though, became dominated by Boas’ methods and, over the years, Frederick Starr and his methods were phased out. Today, his work is rarely read, or even mentioned, in discussions or classes on anthropological history.

After 31 years at the University of Chicago, Starr retired from his post in 1923. True to form, he continued to travel the globe and engage in public speaking events until his death; he died unexpectedly of pneumonia while in Japan in 1933.

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10 Treasures From the New York Academy of Medicine Library
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Tucked away on a side street near Central Park, the New York Academy of Medicine Library is one of the most significant historical medical libraries in the world. Open to the public by appointment since the 19th century, its collection includes 550,000 volumes on subjects ranging from ancient brain surgery to women's medical colleges to George Washington's dentures. A few weeks ago, Mental Floss visited to check out some of their most fascinating items connected to the study of anatomy. Whether it was urine wheels or early anatomy pop-up books, we weren't disappointed.

1. FASCICULUS MEDICINAE (1509)

The Fasciculus Medicinae is a compilation of Greek and Arabic texts first printed in Venice in 1491. While it covers a variety of topics including anatomy and gynecology, the book begins with the discipline considered most important for diagnosing all medical issues at the time: uroscopy (the study of urine). The NYAM Library's curator, Anne Garner, showed us the book's urine wheel, which once had the various flasks of urine colored in to help aid physicians in their diagnosis. Each position of the wheel corresponded to one of the four humors, whether it was phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine, or melancholic. The image on the left, Garner explains, "shows the exciting moment where a servant boy brings his flasks to be analyzed by a professor." Other notable images in the book include one historians like to call "Zodiac Man," showing how the parts of the body were governed by the planets, and "Wound Man," who has been struck by every conceivable weapon, and is accompanied by a text showing how to treat each type of injury. Last but not least, the book includes what's believed to be the first printed image of a dissection.

2. ANDREAS VESALIUS, DE HUMANI CORPORIS FABRICA (1543)

Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Frontispiece of Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Andreas Vesalius, born 1514, was one of the most important anatomists who ever lived. Thanks to him, we moved past an understanding of the human body based primarily on the dissection of animals and toward training that involved the direct dissection of human corpses. The Fabrica was written by Vesalius and published when he was a 28-year-old professor at the University of Padua. Its detailed woodcuts, the most accurate anatomical illustrations up to that point, influenced the depiction of anatomy for centuries to come. "After this book, anatomy divided up into pre-Vesalian and post-Vesalian," Garner says. You can see Vesalius himself in the book's frontispiece (he's the one pointing to the corpse and looking at the viewer). "Vesalius is trying to make a point that he himself is doing the dissection, he believes that to understand the body you have to open it up and look at it," Garner explains.

3. THOMAS GEMINUS, COMPENDIOSA (1559)

Flap anatomy from Thomas Geminus's Compendiosa
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

There was no copyright in the 16th century, and Vesalius's works were re-used by a variety of people for centuries. The first was in Flemish printer and engraver Thomas Geminus’s Compendiosa, which borrowed from several of Vesalius's works. The first edition was published in London just two years after the Fabrica. Alongside a beautiful dedication page made for Elizabeth I and inlaid with real gemstones, the book also includes an example of a "flap anatomy" or a fugitive leaf, which was printed separately with parts that could be cut out and attached to show the various layers of the human body, all the way down to the intestines. As usual for the time, the female is depicted as pregnant, and she holds a mirror that says "know thyself" in Latin.

4. WILLIAM COWPER, THE ANATOMY OF HUMANE BODIES (1698)

Illustration from William Cowper's The Anatomy of Humane Bodies
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

After Vesalius, there was little new in anatomy texts until the Dutch anatomist Govard Bidloo published his Anatomia humani corporis in 1685. The work was expensive and not much of a financial success, so Bidloo sold excess plates to the English anatomist William Cowper, who published the plates with an English text without crediting Bidloo (a number of angry exchanges between the two men followed). The copperplate engravings were drawn by Gérard de Lairesse, who Garner notes was "incredibly talented." But while the engravings are beautiful, they're not always anatomically correct, perhaps because the relationship between de Lairesse and Bidloo was fraught (Bidloo was generally a bit difficult). The skeleton shown above is depicted holding an hourglass, by then a classic of death iconography.

5. 17TH-CENTURY IVORY MANIKINS

17th Century Ivory Manikin
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

These exquisite figures are a bit of a mystery: It was originally thought that they were used in doctors’ offices to educate pregnant women about what was happening to their bodies, but because of their lack of detail, scholars now think they were more likely expensive collector's items displayed in cabinets of curiosity by wealthy male physicians. The arms of the manikins (the term for anatomical figures like this) lift up, allowing the viewer to take apart their removable hearts, intestines, and stomachs; the female figure also has a little baby inside her uterus. There are only about 100 of these left in the world, mostly made in Germany, and NYAM has seven.

6. BERNHARD SIEGFRIED ALBINUS, TABULAE SCELETI (1747)

Illustration from Bernhard Siegfried Albinus's Tabulae Sceleti
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

One of the best-known anatomists of the 18th century, the Dutch anatomist Bernhard Siegfried Albinus went to medical school at age 12 and had a tenured position at the University of Leiden by the time he was 24. The Tabulae Sceleti was his signature work. The artist who worked on the text, Jan Wandelaar, had studied with Gérard de Lairesse, the artist who worked with Bidloo. Wandelaar and Albinus developed what Garner says was a bizarre method of suspending cadavers from the ceiling in the winter and comparing them to a (very cold and naked) living person lying on the floor in the same pose. Albinus also continued the dreamy, baroque funerary landscape of his predecessors, and his anatomy is "very, very accurate," according to Garner.

The atlas also features an appearance by Clara, a celebrity rhinoceros, who was posed with one of the skeletons. "When Albinus is asked why [he included a rhinoceros], he says, 'Oh, Clara is just another natural wonder of the world, she's this amazing creation,' but really we think Clara is there to sell more atlases because she was so popular," Garner says.

7. FERDINAND HEBRA, ATLAS DER HAUTKRANKHEITEN (1856–1876)

Circus performer Georg Constantin as depicted in Ferdinand Hebra's dermatological atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

By the mid-19th century, dermatology had started to emerge as its own discipline, and the Vienna-based Ferdinand Hebra was a leading light in the field. He began publishing this dermatological atlas in 1856 (it appeared in 10 installments), featuring chromolithographs that showed different stages of skin diseases and other dermatological irregularities.

"While some of the images are very disturbing, they also tend to adhere to Victorian portrait conventions, with very ornate hair, and [subjects] looking off in the distance," Garner says. But one of the most famous images from the book has nothing to do with disease—it's a depiction of Georg Constantin, a well-known Albanian circus performer in his day, who was covered in 388 tattoos of animals, flowers, and other symbols. He travelled throughout Europe and North America, and was known as "Prince Constantine" during a spell with Barnum's Circus. (The image is also available from NYAM as a coloring sheet.)

8. KOICHI SHIBATA, OBSTETRICAL POCKET PHANTOM (1895)

19th century Obstetrical Pocket Phantom
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Obstetrical phantoms, often made of cloth, wood, or leather, were used to teach medical students about childbirth. This "pocket phantom" was originally published in Germany, and Garner explains that because it was made out of paper, it was much cheaper for medical students. The accompanying text, translated in Philadelphia, tells how to arrange the phantom and describes the potential difficulties of various positions.

9. ROBERT L. DICKINSON AND ABRAM BELSKIE, BIRTH ATLAS (1940)

Image from Robert Dickinson's Birth Atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Robert Dickinson was a Brooklyn gynecologist, early birth control advocate, and active member of NYAM. His Birth Atlas is illustrated with incredibly lifelike terracotta models created by New Jersey sculptor Abram Belskie. The models were exhibited at the 1939 New York World's Fair, where they became incredibly popular, drawing around 700,000 people according to Garner. His depictions "are very beautiful and serene, and a totally different way of showing fetal development than anything that had come before," Garner notes.

10. RALPH H. SEGAL, THE BODYSCOPE (1948)

The Bodyscope
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

This midcentury cardboard anatomy guide contains male and female figures as well as rotating wheels, called volvelles, that can be turned to display details on different parts of the body as well as accompanying explanatory text. The Bodyscope is also decorated with images of notable medical men—and "wise" sayings about God's influence on the body.

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23 Funny Historical Letters to Santa
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At the end of the 19th century, illustrator Thomas Nast popularized our current version of Santa Claus: a fat, jolly man with a white beard and a red suit who lives at the North Pole. Nast’s cartoons in publications like Harper’s Weekly also helped spread the idea of sending St. Nick mail. By the late 1870s, American children had begun mailing their Christmas wish lists to Santa, but the Post Office considered these letters undeliverable. Around this time, newspapers began prompting children to send wish lists to them, which would then be published so that Santa (and parents) could read the letters all in one place. We’ve collected 23 funny historical letters from children to Santa Claus, as printed in newspapers across the U.S.

1. CONRAD FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

Conrad tries to mask his violent tendencies by interspersing the weapons between non-threatening gifts, but he shows his hand with that threat at the end.

2. CLIFFORD FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

Clifford sounds ... intense.

3. MARIE FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

“As I can not have it I will not ask for it" ... but I will mention it, just in case.

4. LYNWOOD FROM VIRGINIA (1903)

“I smashed everything you sent me last year." I won’t tell you what I want this year, but you better not mess up.

5. PAUL FROM VIRGINIA (1903)

This 4-year-old is very concerned about his infant brother’s lack of teeth. Since the local doctor has proved useless to rectify the situation, Paul hopes Santa might be able to lend a hand. He is magical, after all.

6. HARRY FROM MONTANA (1903)

Fergus County Argus, Dec. 16, 1903

Who knew keeping your feet dry was such an important part of staying off the Naughty list?

7. RAYMOND FROM WEST VIRGINIA (1907)

Clarence doesn’t sound very nice.

8. PERCY FROM WEST VIRGINIA (1907)

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Poor Opal and Mildred. They’re just girls. Do girls even have preferences?

9. VIRGINIA FROM MISSOURI (1907)

Virginia understands that sometimes Santa needs to delegate.

10. ROBERT FROM TENNESSEE (1913)

The Commercial, Dec. 19, 1913

Old people get lonely.

11. WILLIE FROM FLORIDA (1915)

Sure, an axe sounds like an age-appropriate gift for a five-year-old.

12. ELEANOR FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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“Bring both if possible.”

13. UNSIGNED LETTER FROM FLORIDA (1913)

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This transplant from Maine would really like a basketball, but he doesn’t quite believe that a Santa Claus can exist in Florida, where there isn’t even any snow.

14. WALTER FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Daytona Daily News, Dec. 17, 1915

Good choice not to act a pig, Walter.

15. MERLA FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

Merla will not be ignored!

16. ROY FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

A doll dressed in a cowboy suit could not be called Raymond. A lack of sailor suit is a dealbreaker.

17. MAXWELL FROM FLORIDA

The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

Ways to improve your chances of getting a pony from Santa, according to Maxwell Hudson: 1. Admit right off it’s expensive. 2. Say you will use it to take your sisters to school. 3. Promise to be grateful for anything Santa brings, so as not to seem greedy. 4. Make yourself seem extra kindhearted (and thus deserving of a pony) by showing concern for your fatherless neighbors. Did it work? We will never know.

18. MOXIE FROM TENNESSEE (1916)

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Perhaps a kid known for being mean shouldn’t be given a firearm.

19. DICK FROM SOUTH CAROLINA (1916)

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The County Record, Dec. 21, 1916

No, Santa certainly wouldn’t want to get “fastened in” the chimney.

20. JOHN FROM NEW MEXICO (1918)

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World War I devastated Western Europe, decimating a generation of young men—and apparently killing the French Santa Claus.

21. MARY FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

Come on, Mary, Santa’s not a mind reader.

22. JEWEL FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

No apology for the door-slamming incident. That might have helped your cause, Jewel.

23. R.B. FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

R.B. is very thoughtful to provide such specific instructions; otherwise, Santa might get confused.

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