By Robert M. Peck, Senior Fellow of the Academy
Over the years I have corresponded with a number of historic figures and foreign heads of state, but never with a president of the United States, and never about something as personal as hair.
Last summer I wrote to all of our living presidents to invite them to visit the Academy of Natural Sciences to see an exhibition of presidential materials from our collections. The show, I explained, would include some of Thomas Jefferson’s fossils once kept in the White House, some presidential correspondence relating to natural history, and some hair samples from a collection that includes locks from the first 13 presidents of the U.S.
These last artifacts, rarely exhibited, but always a favorite with our visitors when they are, is part of a much larger collection of hair that was assembled in the early 19th century by an Academy member interested in determining the relationship between humans from different parts of the world. The collector, Peter A. Browne, thought that the hair of famous men and women might shed light on the character traits that had led to their success as public figures.
His presidential samples, beautifully mounted in albums, run from George Washington to Millard Fillmore. In my letter to our living presidents, I suggested that if they would like to contribute hair samples to this unusual collection, the Academy would be delighted to accept them and hold them, as we do the others, for posterity.
A few weeks later I received a hand-written reply from President Jimmy Carter in which he explained that, while he could not come to Philadelphia to see our exhibit, he would be willing to contribute something to our collection. The only challenge, he said, would be its length. “I wear my hair very short, and the barber cuts off pieces that are ¼ to ½ inches long,” he wrote. “Any advice?”
I replied that we would be happy to accept his offering regardless of its length. I also invited him to tell us a little bit about it. When I didn’t hear from him for several months, I assumed he had decided against the gift.
But then one day in September, an envelope from his Atlanta office arrived in the mail. It contained a ziplock bag with a cluster of clippings of the president’s hair and a cover letter thoughtfully responding to my request.
“I had a military haircut at the Naval Academy and during my years in submarines,” he wrote. “Later, before and during my presidential years, I wore my hair much longer than now. Since returning home from the White House, I have kept it cut quite short, so these pieces are mostly less than one-half inches long. I did not anticipate growing longer locks for display in a museum! Best wishes, Jimmy Carter”
When Peter Browne first began to assemble his collection of presidential hair in the 1840s, he could never have imagined that 175 years later it would still be a subject of public interest.
With continuing advances in DNA analysis, his collection is now even more useful in pursuing the scientific inquiries he envisioned, and some he could never have imagined.
Thanks to the generosity of our chief executives through time, the Academy holds a collection that may help shed light on the past, present, and future of our republic and its leaders.
Our invitation to the other presidents for contributions of their hair still stands.
Here is a previous post about the exhibit on presidential hair and other items: