KI and the legacy of Anders and Gustaf Retzius

For more than 200 years Karolinska Institutet (KI) has educated students and conducted research in medicine, the life sciences and public health. The practice of medicine and scientific research interacts with, and is shaped by the values and power relationships of their time.

In the 19th century, the dominant colonial world order influenced KI's professors and researchers. Some of them committed acts or expressed opinions that, from our point of view today, would be regarded as unethical, unscientific, undemocratic or racist. Those things are part of KI's history.

Historical background

Today, KI is committed to an ethical approach that emphasises the importance of taking responsibility for and respecting the rights and dignity of all people  equally. KI reflects critically on its operations, past and present, informed by historical research. KI has a complex legacy, one that can’t be reduced to simplistic sagas of villains and heroes, or self-congratulatory celebrations of uninterrupted progress.

In recent years, the research and activities of two eminent 19th-century KI professors, Anders and Gustaf Retzius have come under public discussion. Here we present a brief overview of the historical background and describe how KI is dealing with this historical legacy today.

Research on "race" at KI

Anders Retzius (1796-1860) and his son Gustaf Retzius (1842-1919) were both internationally renowned scientists of their time, eminent comparative anatomists. Their research on human variation was premised on the widespread belief that there exist distinct human "races". The Retziuses measured human skulls in the hope of coming up with quantitative methods for determining national and ethnic differences. They collected human remains for their research and teaching, using methods that are today considered unethical or illegal.

The legacy of Anders and Gustaf Retzius is mixed. Both men figure in the international history of racial science. In the middle of the 19th century, they supported social reforms and were politically liberal. But towards the end of his life, Gustaf Retzius became increasingly reactionary, and asserted objectionable opinions that valued the characteristics of  the “Nordic” and ”Germanic” races above other races.

From physical anthropology to “racial biology”

Gustaf Retzius conducted his racial research within the nineteenth-century discipline of physical anthropology. Around 1900, scientific research on human variation adopted new theories. The new “racial biology” reinterpreted 19th-century observational data in the light of Mendelian heredity theory and Galtonian eugenics. In Sweden, research in racial biology was mostly carried out at other universities and not KI. However, the history of KI’s involvement in racial biology has not been thoroughly studied. More research is needed.

Gustaf Retzius's thoughts on racial biology are unclear. In 1907 he was offered the chairmanship of the Swedish Society for Eugenics, but declined, and never became a member. However, he was an early supporter of Herman Lundborg's clinical research on hereditary epilepsy. (Lundborg was director of the National Institute of Racial Biology in Uppsala 1921-1935.)

KI's collection of human crania

KI currently has a collection of approximately 800 human crania, assembled by Anders and Gustaf Retzius and other researchers. A large portion of the collection is archaeological, hundreds or thousands of years old. In terms of national origin, the largest group – just under 200 individuals – consists of Swedish skulls recovered during archaeological excavations and autopsies. About 200 come from other European countries. And 400 originate outside of Europe. Of these, 240 are ancient skulls from Egypt, Peru, and Siberia. KI’s crania collection is small compared  to other collections: Uppsala has about 1,200 crania; Lund 2,000; Helsinki 1,400; Oslo 9,000, London 25,000; Berlin 15,000; and Harvard University 22,000.

During the 19th century, the skulls were considered central to research into human difference, origins and the geographical spread of populations. At KI, they were part of a larger anatomical museum collection that contained normal and pathological skeletons of people of different ages, along with preparations of healthy and diseased organs in glass jars. There were also a variety of animal skeletons, from tiny shrews to an African elephant. Similar collections were created at the same time at other universities and hospitals all over the world. The importance of anatomical museums diminished around 1900 when microscopic preparations became more important for research and teaching. Around the same time, research on and the collecting of human crania also diminished.

When KI moved to its current campus in Solna in the 1940s, very few museum specimens were moved to the new premises. The old museum collections were considered unsuitable for modern teaching and research purposes. The skull collection was retained, but no longer used. In 1968, the collection of crania was deposited with the newly established Department of Osteology at Stockholm University. Later, most of the collection was deposited in 2005 at the Medical History Museum in Stockholm. When the museum closed down the same year, the collection was kept in a storage space until 2015, except for the ancient Egyptian remains, which were deposited at Uppsala University, which continues to hold them.

Today, the collection of human remains are stored and managed in accordance with international law and ethical rules. The responsibility for this lies with the Unit for Medical History and Heritage at KI. Historians and an osteo-archaeologist are now working to document the collection: the goal is to find out how each individual came to end up in KI's collection and how the collection was used in research and education. Our top priority is to repatriate (return) remains to indigenous peoples. We understand that indigenous peoples still suffer the consequences of colonial oppression and exploitation, including the taking of human remains. We regard repatriation as part of a process of restitution and reconciliation.

Addressing our history: a timeline

2013–2021: Historical research, repatriation, and ethics

2013: Unit for Medical History and Heritage is established

The Unit for Medical History and Heritage at KI is established through the merger of the Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library and the former Culture Unit at KI. Medical History and Heritage is responsible for the management and development of KI's cultural heritage and medical historical collections, as well as for communicating and developing knowledge of KI's history.

2014: proposals are made to remove the name Retzius

Proposals to remove the name Retzius from buildings and classrooms at KI are put forward by doctoral students at the Department of Neuroscience because Gustaf Retzius's research is perceived as racist. Experts from Medical History and Heritage hold a seminar at the Department of Neuroscience and establish a dialogue with the doctoral students. An exhibition to study, problematize and contextualize Anders and Gustaf Retzius's racial research is proposed.

2015: KI assumes responsibility for the skull collection and begins the identification process.
Repatriations are prioritized

KI recovers the entire skull collection from the storage rooms at the Medical History Museum, in keeping with KI's mission to take greater responsibility for its historical heritage, and to ensure that the remains are stored safely, according to professional standards, and handled in a dignified and legally secure way.

An identification and documentation project is initiated, led by Medical History and Heritage. The aim is to research and document the remains in KI's collection, how they ended up at KI, and where they came from. Because the original catalogues were destroyed in a fire in 1892 (along with some 200 remains, including approximately 40 of Sami origin, (in Swedish)), most of the original documentation is lacking. A specialist in osteo-archaeology is recruited to facilitate analysis and preservation of the remains. The research process is necessary to properly make repatriations to indigenous communities.

Repatriations (returns) of indigenous remains are made a priority. KI’s collection is managed in line with international and national practices, such as the International Committee of Museums (ICOM) guidelines for the conservation and management of human remains and repatriations to indigenous peoples. Each return is made after extensive research and consultation with Indigenous representatives, and requires government decisions. Two repatriations carried out previously were made, to indigenous groups in North America (1996) and Hawaii (2009).

KI initiates a Nordic network of institutions that keep historical collections of human remains. The aim is mutual learning and shared knowledge to improve the way we deal with complex issues. KI and the Nordic network cooperate with the Swedish National Heritage Board.

2016: Repatriation to French Polynesia

Repatriation to French Polynesia (in Swedish) is conducted in collaboration with Uppsala University. A delegation takes over the remains and transfers them to an indigenous group in French Polynesia together with a courier from Uppsala University.

2017: Repatriation to Aotearoa/New Zealand and North America

Repatriation is made to New Zealand with a handover to a delegation from Aotearoa/New Zealand at a ceremony, led by Maori representatives, at Haga Courthouse.

Repatriation is made to North America with a courier from KI.

2018: Repatriation to Australia and North America. Question raised regarding the return to Finland

Repatriation to Australia, with a handover at a ceremony at the Australian Ambassador's residence. At the ceremony, indigenous Australians are represented by a Sami delegation.

Repatriation to North America, with a courier from KI.

KI establishes an ethics council (in Swedish) with external and internal members. The council works actively and broadly on ethical issues that have a bearing on KI.

A Sweden-Finnish committee raises the question of the return of Finnish remains that are in KI's collection. The case is complicated. There is no international practice for the return of remains between independent states which applies to a majority population. Via Medical History and Heritage, KI communicates with the committee and the relevant Swedish and Finnish authorities.

KI moves out of the Retzius Laboratory (in Swedish) and a bust of Gustaf Retzius is placed in storage.

2019: KI apologizes for unethical excavation and collection of Finnish remains. KI adopts Strategy 2030

KI responds to a letter sent by the Swedish Finnish Committee and apologizes for the unethical and opportunistic excavation and export of remains from Finnish cemeteries in 1873.

KI adopts a strategy document, Strategy 2030, in which issues of ethics, history, and culture are highlighted as priorities.

2020: President Ole Petter Ottersen establishes a working group on ethical perspectives regarding KI’s historical legacy

KI’s President appoints a special working group to study KI's historical heritage from an ethical perspective. Gert Helgesson, professor of medical ethics, leads the group with participants with different competencies, both from KI and other universities. The working group is instructed to:

  1. review the names of historical persons assigned to streets, classrooms, and other premises on KI's campus.
  2. conduct a review of the management of the historical anatomical collection from an ethical perspective.

A bust of Anders Retzius displayed on KI’s Solna campus is removed and placed in storage.

A lecture hall on the Solna campus which bears Retzius's name is provided with an updated information sign and a link (in Swedish) to additional information.

A planned repatriation to North America is postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

2021: The working group holds a seminar and writes reports

The first seminar on KI's historical legacy is carried out (February).

The President’s working group presented its first interim report in august 2021. The report, which investigated whether personal names used for street names, buildings, and teaching rooms on KI's campus could be linked to, among other things, racial research and far-right movements. The report proposed decisions and principles for the management of problematic personal names.

Ole Petter Ottersen, KI:s principal, decided that the name Retzius should be removed from a lecture hall at KI campus and also assigned a commission to elaborate a new name policy for buildings and lecture halls on KI campus. 

The second part of the working group’s assignment begins in the autumn of 2021. It will focus on the historical anatomical collection and its management. The plan is to hold a second open seminar, and present an interim report that includes an account of the history of the collections.

The working group presented their report in august of 2022. 

In may 2022 KI repatriated the remains of two individuals to North America. 

In august 2022 KI informed representatives for the Sami people in Malå that remains of a famous Sami woman from Malå had been found during the documentation of the human remains collection at KI. The Unit for Cultural History and Heritage are now working together with representatives of Malå Sameförening to promote a swift repatriation of the remains to Malå.  

The Unit for Medical History and Heritage continues researching and documenting the human remains collection and its history, while also preparing for future repatriations. Regarding the Finnnish remains in the collection, we continue dialogues with Finnish and Swedish authorities, as well as with finnish arcaeologists.

In october 2022 KI:s principal Ole Petter Ottersen wrote an open letter to the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to clarify that KI is happy to aid in the process of returning the Finnish remains in KI:s collections to Finland. In his letter, Ottersen underscores that Finnish and Swedish governments need to reach an agreement since there is a lack of praxis for repatriation of remains between majority populations. 

In april 2023 KI:s board decided on guidelines for administration and repatriation of human remains in the anatomical collection