A History of Smithsonian-FBI Collaboration in Forensic Anthropology, Especially in Regard to Facial Imagery

Article excerpt


For more than 60 years, physical anthropologists at the Smithsonian Institution have provided continuous consultation in forensic anthropology to their neighbors in Washington, DC--the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This work has involved recovery of evidence at the scene; determination of human or nonhuman status; estimation of sex, age at death, ancestry, living stature, and time since death; evaluation of postmortem change and trauma; and other factors that contribute to identification, including facial reproduction and photographic superimposition. Although the nature and intensity of this consultation have evolved over the decades, its roots extend to the very foundation of American physical anthropology.


Ales Hrdli ... ka (1869-1943) is widely regarded as a key figure in the early history of American physical anthropology. Hrdli ... ka immigrated to the United States from Bohemia in 1881 and later received medical training in New York. As his interests shifted to anthropology, he was hired in 1903 as the first curator of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian. He remained there for the rest of his extremely productive career (retired in 1942 and died in 1943) and amassed large collections of human remains in support of his research.

Although Hrdli ... ka was best known for his contributions to other aspects of physical anthropology (Stewart 1940), he also played an important role in the early development of forensic anthropology (Ubelaker 1999a). Early in his career, he had been active professionally on various medico-legal issues, such as the biological basis for abnormal behavior and aspects of epilepsy and insanity as they relate to criminal behavior. As his interests shifted toward comparative human osteology and anthropology in general, he gradually became involved in problems within the area of physical anthropology that is recognized today as forensic anthropology.

As early as June 13, 1936, Hrdli ... ka's scholarship attracted the attention of the FBI. Referencing his testimony before a committee of the House of Representatives, FBI officials noted his impressive credentials and described him as "the best informed man in the United States on anthropology" (Ubelaker 1999a:728). A month later, the FBI advised its Jacksonville office to contact Hrdli...ka on a forensic matter.

More formal consultation between Hrdli ... ka and the FBI followed. On February 11, 1938, the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972), wrote to the Secretary of the Smithsonian, C. G. Abbot, requesting Hrdli ... ka's assistance in evaluating specimens thought to be human. He wrote, "In view of the fact that the Bureau's Technical laboratory does not have facilities to conduct such examination it will be appreciated if the Anthropological Laboratories will conduct this examination and report upon the results of their examination. In accordance with previous arrangements the specimens will be delivered by a representative of the Bureau's Technical laboratory." This brief summary of the arrangement describes the essence of the process that has continued uninterrupted to the present.

Records are not entirely clear, but those available suggest Hrdli ... ka reported on at least 37 cases for the FBI and corresponded with FBI Director Hoover on related matters (Ubelaker 1999b). Hrdli ... ka did not publish directly on this work, and even his long-term assistant, T. D. Stewart (1901-1997), had minimal knowledge of this area of his activity (Ubelaker 2000). However, on at least these 37 occasions, Hrdli ... ka offered opinions as to whether remains were of human origin, and if so, the age at death, antiquity, sex, stature, ancestry, and evidence of foul play.

There is no evidence that Hrdli ... ka attempted or was involved directly with facial reproduction from crania. In fact, in his report of a 1940 case that was apparently studied at the request of the FBI, Hrdli . …