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A Look Back at 2020 AAAS Award Winners: Anthropologist Recognized for Discovery of Unmarked Graves

Erin Kimmerle led a four-year excavation during which she and her team discovered the remains of dozens of boys in unmarked graves. | Neil Orman/AAAS

Last February, Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist who worked to account for dozens of children buried at a notorious Florida reform school, received the 2020 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The annual award honors scientists, engineers or organizations whose actions have exemplified scientific freedom and responsibility in challenging circumstances, sometimes at risk to their professional or physical safety.

From 1900 to 2011, the state of Florida operated the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in the Panhandle town of Marianna. Some of the children institutionalized there were sent by courts after committing serious crimes, while others were sent as punishment for minor infractions. Most of the boys were black and came from families with few resources with which to fight their sentences.

Beginning in 2012, Kimmerle led a four-year investigation into the first 60 years of the school’s operation. She and her team excavated the remains of 51 boys — previously listed as “missing” — from unmarked graves. Kimmerle and a multidisciplinary team of volunteers from law enforcement agencies and universities were able to positively identify eight of the bodies using DNA. Those identified were returned to their families, and in 2017 the governor signed into law a bill providing $1.2 million for reburials and memorials.

Kimmerle carried out her research while facing resistance from those unwilling to reckon with the school’s past. One newspaper publisher called the excavation a “greed motivated waste of money” that would lead to “bad publicity.” Marianna’s police chief wrote to a state attorney about the possibility of preventing the dig under a statute that forbids the “destruction, mutilation, defacement, injury or removal” of a gravesite.

Despite these efforts to sabotage the project, Kimmerle’s findings received coverage from hundreds of global news outlets. Kimmerle also established a publicly available digital archive at the University of South Florida that includes audio and visual recordings, transcripts of oral history interviews, maps and photographs related to the project, and she is working on a book on the topic.

“Dr. Kimmerle’s research at the Dozier School site led to the unlocking of a tragic history in our state,” former U.S. Senator Bill Nelson wrote in a letter to AAAS. “Dr. Kimmerle’s expertise in forensic anthropology and her dedication to applying her profession provided a voice for human rights.”

AAAS will announce the winner of the 2021 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award during the 187th AAAS Annual Meeting, to take place virtually Feb. 8-11. Register for the meeting today.