At the age of 50, after serving as a surgeon in the Civil War and later as an editor of a medical publication, Daniel Garrison Brinton retired. But not for long.
The Chester County, Pa., native soon found a second career in an entirely different field: ethnology. His evolving scholarship, specifically as a linguistics and archaeology professor at Penn in the late 1800s, would go on to define the discipline of anthropology in the United States.
“I see Brinton as a transitional figure who represents the end point of the 19th-century tradition of broad, amateur interest in Mesoamerica, and the early-20th-century shift toward a professionalized, university-based anthropology,” says Lindsay Van Tine, a Council on Library and Information Resources postdoctoral fellow at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, who’s spent the past two years studying Brinton’s work at Penn.
An “armchair ethnologist,” Brinton’s work—he produced more than 20 books and 200 articles and essays—was based on library research rather than fieldwork. To facilitate his studies, he formed a massive collection of manuscripts, books, maps, and artifacts. His focus was Native American languages, cultures, and folklore of the entire Western Hemisphere.
A new single-case exhibit, “Collecting Mesoamerica: The Hemispheric Roots of U.S. Anthropology,” on view at Van Pelt-Dietrich Library’s Snyder-Granader Alcove through Friday, July 7, takes a dive into Brinton’s Mesoamerica collection, one of his primary areas of focus. A portion of the showcased items hail from philologist Carl Hermann Berendt’s exhaustive collection, which Brinton acquired in 1871.
“During this time, there was a fascination with Mesoamerica, not just among scholars but the general public as well,” explains Van Tine,…