Many of us freely admit we obsess over our hair (yours truly included). Naturalist Peter A. Browne (1782–1860) obsessed over other people’s hair, eventually filling a dozen albums of human and animal hair because he believed hair could unravel the mystery of human evolution.
Browne bequeathed this unusual collection to the Academy, and now Academy Senior Fellow Robert Peck has written a book on the subject, Specimens of Hair: The Curious Collection of Peter A. Browne. Nineteenth-century scientists considered the collection important for research; today the most striking part of the collection is the locks of 13 of the first 14 U.S. presidents.
Peck will give a free talk and sign copies of his book on Wednesday, Nov. 14, at 6:30 pm. as part of the Academy Town Square series. To register for this special event, go to this link on ansp. Bonus: you’ll be among the first to see a selection of the hair albums as part of an intimate exhibit that will open that day.
We caught up with Peck and asked for an explanation of his (and Browne’s) curious passion.
What is the collector’s connection to the Academy? Why did he bequeath his collection to us?
Peter Browne, whose wide range of scientific interests included botany, geology and mammalogy was an active member of the Academy. When he asked the Smithsonian’s Secretary, Joseph Henry, where would be the best place to deposit his collection, Henry recommended the Academy as he thought it would be the institution that could take the best care of it and would be the place future scientists would be most likely to seek it out for study.
Was hair collecting a common Victorian pastime?
The hair of family and friends was commonly exchanged and retained throughout the 19th century. It was often framed, kept in albums, or featured in jewelry. Today many parents still retain the hair from their child’s first haircut, but it is rarely put on public display as it was during the Victorian era.
Does this rank as the weirdest item in the Academy’s archives?
The collection may seem “weird” by today’s standards, but at the time it was made it was considered very important by scientists around the world. Browne referred to it as a national collection. It contained not just the hair of humans, but the wool of sheep and the fur and hair of many other mammals. It was a collection made for scientific purposes and for the love of country.
I hear you saved this collection from the trash heap.
In the mid-1970s, before anyone recognized the importance and irreplaceable value of the DNA contained in Browne’s collection, a staff member in a position to determine its fate decided that the wool, fur and human hair it contained was of no (current) scientific interest and was taking up too much space and he decided to discard it. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time to spot it and save it from oblivion. Who would have guessed it would one day become a collection of such interest and the subject of a book?!
Why is it important to preserve a collection such as this? How does it benefit society?
The DNA contained in the hair can tell us much about the individuals and groups represented.
These irreplaceable “pile samples” are landmarks in the history of life.
Why did he take samples from people with mental disabilities?
Browne was trying to determine as much as he could about all kinds of humans through their hair. He wanted to compare very intelligent and successful people as well as those with less successful lives (including criminals) through something as tangible and fundamental as hair to see if it would cast any light on the reasons for their similarities and differences or help to explain their accomplishments and behavior.
Any women’s hair in there?
Browne was interested in collecting the hair of men and women alike. There are examples of women’s hair throughout the albums, but the majority of notable people represented in his collection are male.
Did Browne ever draw credible conclusions from his hair collection?
He contributed greatly to commercial wool production in America by identifying which sheep produced the best kinds of wool. He also determined how certain human populations were related to one another based on their hair. For example, he concluded that the indigenous people of North and South America were related to those in Asia. This confirmed the speculation that people had migrated across the Bearing land bridge from Asia to North America at the time of the last Ice Age. Modern day DNA analysis of human hair has since reinforced what Brown theorized through his innovative microscopic analysis.
Your book about the Browne collection is beautiful and gives the impression of handling the real thing. How did that come to pass?
We were very fortunate that Rosamond Purcell, the doyen of natural history specimen photography, who has created many award-winning books, agreed to take on this book. She had seen and photographed parts of the Browne collection when she was working on A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the Making of American Science (2012). For Specimens of Hair, she spent several days pouring through the Browne albums page by page. The resulting photographs are a testament to her artful eye and consummate skill as a photographer.
Publishers Weekly selected Specimens of Hair: The Curious Collection of Peter A. Browne as one of four books for the section titled “Slightly Weird and Very Wonderful” in its Holiday Gift Guide 2018.
Post by Carolyn Belardo