Race and Evolution in Antebellum Alabama: The Polygenist Prehistory We’d Rather Ignore

  • Erik L. Peterson


The name of Alabama physician Josiah Clark Nott (1804–1873) adorns a building on the campus of the University of Alabama perhaps in part because he made it possible for scientists to speak of the origins of humanity and an antiquated Earth without first nodding to Genesis. Nott popularized a fully secular science that investigated the development of humanity two decades before Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871). But Nott also provided solid scientific support for some of the most repugnant racial theories of the Victorian era. Using previously unexplored archival resources, this essay attempts to clear up the mythology surrounding Nott, the history of evolutionary theory, and the role of American science during the foundation of anthropology.


Yellow Fever Physical Anthropology Common Descent White Supremacy British Science 
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Research was supported by a Reynolds-Finney Research Fellowship. Many thanks to Michael Flannery, Peggy Balch, Timothy Pennycuff, and Stefanie Rookis at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Archives, Medical Museum, and Lister Hill Special Collections for their assistance, advice, and historical knowledge. Thank you also to Kathryn Metheny at Hoole Special Collections at the University of Alabama for unflagging encouragement and support. Trever J. Chidester and Jodi B. Wilson conducted the initial research into the 1923 naming of Nott Hall.

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Erik L. Peterson
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of HistoryThe University of AlabamaTuscaloosa, ALUSA

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