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Week Six: the Cerebral Science of Phrenology, 1790 - 1840

Phrenology was an unorthodox psychological science that aroused great interest, and won many adherents, amongst British medical practitioners, lawyers and merchants from the late 1810s to the early 1840s. Essentially, the science taught the brain was comprised of a multiplicity of organs, each the locus of a specific "faculty" of emotion or intellect. The psychological characteristics of an individual or reproductively related groups of people were thus seen as determined by the relative strengths and weaknesses of each organically based faculty. Not only this, phrenology assumed the relative power of each organ could be accurately gauged by noting the degree of impression it made on the overlying cranial bone as a person grew to maturity - hence the reason why adepts of the science were commonly ridiculed by their critics as head readers and "bumpologists."

Today, it is hard to take phrenology seriously; but during the first half of the nineteenth century, it was regarded by many to be a science, and counted physicians, anatomists and surgeons amongst its adherents.

The founders of phrenology, Franz-Joseph Gall (1758-1828) and Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1776-1832) were widely credited with having demonstrated that the human brain was a collection of organs, the differential growth of which in a person, a family - or indeed a nation or race, determined their inherent qualities of mind and character. Hence it seemed that organic predisposition to particular kinds of personal or collective behavior could be identified - indeed predicted - by examining the exterior shape of the skull, given that its shape would reflect the differing size of the underlying organs making up the brain.

Among the questions we will discuss in our tutorial (in the week following that of my lecture on phrenology) are:

  • Why were physicians, anatomists and surgeons attracted to phrenology?
  • Phrenology had its critics, but what were the main objections to the science?
  • How do we explain the wide attraction of phrenology beyond medico-scientific circles?
  • How do we acount for the decline in the number of phrenological societies from the 1840s onwards?
  • Did phrenology have ant lasting influence on European thinking about the relations between brain and mind?

The readings for this tutorial are those primary and secondary sources listed in connection with last week's lecture.

Recommended readings: primary sources

Again, you are not expected to read all of the recommended primary sources, but at least one or two chapters in each work.

Spurzheim, Johann G. 1833. Phrenology, in connexion with the Study of Physiology...Boston: Marsh Capen & Lyon [much revised version of original 1811 treatise on phrenology]. Full text supplied in linked PDF file above.

Combe, George. 1835. The Constitution of Man, considered in relation to External Objects.... New York: William Pearson [first edition published Edinburgh and London, 1828]. Full text supplied in linked PDF file above.

Recommended readings: scholarship


The majority of the following articles are available online via the UQ Library:

Bank, Andrew. 1996. Of `native skulls' and `noble caucasians': Phrenology in colonial South Africa. Journal of Southern African Studies 22, (3) (09): 387.

Cantor, G. N. 1975. A critique of Shapin's social interpretation of the Edinburgh phrenology debate. Annals of Science 32, (3) (05): 245.

---. 1975. Phrenology in early nineteenth-century Edinburgh: An historiographical discussion. Annals of Science 32, (3) (05): 195.

Cooter, R. J. 1976. Phrenology and British alienists, C1825-1845: Converts to a doctrine. Medical History 20, (1) (01): 1-21.

---. 1976. Phrenology: The provocation of progress. History of Science 14, (4) (09): 211-34.

Giustino, David de. 1972. Reforming the commonwealth of thieves: British phrenologists and Australia. Victorian Studies 15, (4) (Spring1972): 439-61.

Green, Christopher D. 2009. The curious rise and fall of experimental psychology in mind. History of the Human Sciences 22, (1) (02): 37-57.

Haller, John S. Jr. 1970. Concepts of race inferiority in nineteenth-century anthropology. Journal of the History of Medicine & Allied Sciences 25, (1) (01): 40-51.

Lucie, Patricia. 2007. The sinner and the phrenologist: Davey Haggart meets George Combe. Journal of Scottish Historical Studies 27, (2) (12): 125-49.

McLaren, Angus. 1981. A prehistory of the social sciences: Phrenology in France. Comparative Studies in Society & History 23, (1) (01): 3-22.

Parssmen, T. M. 1974. Popular science and society: The phrenology movement in early Victorian Britain. Journal of Social History 8, (1) (Fall 74) [Note: available in print only via UQ Library]

Shapin, Steven. 1975. Phrenological knowledge and the social structure of early nineteenth-century Edinburgh. Annals of Science 32, (3) (05): 219.

Shortland, Michael. 1987. Courting the cerebellum: Early organological and phrenological views of sexuality. British Journal for the History of Science 20, (2) (06): 173-99.

Staum, Martin. 1995. Physiognomy and phrenology at the Paris Athenee. Journal of the History of Ideas 56, (3) (07): 443.

Steinberg, David A. 2009. Cerebral localization in the nineteenth century - the birth of a science and its modern consequences. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 18, (3) (Jul): 254-61.

Tomlinson, Stephen. 1997. Phrenology, education and the politics of human nature: The thought and influence of George Combe. History of Education 26, (1) (03): 1.

Turnbull, Paul. 2007. British anatomists, phrenologists and the construction of the aboriginal race, C.1790-1830. History Compass 5, (01): 26-50.

Van Wyhe, John. 2004. Was phrenology a reform science? towards a new generalization for phrenology. History of Science 42, (3) (09): 313-31.

---. 2002. The authority of human nature: The schädellehre of Franz Joseph Gall. British Journal for the History of Science 35, (124) (03): 17.


Combe, George. 1893. The constitution of man in relation to the natural laws. London: Cassell.

Cooter, Roger. 2005; 1984. The cultural meaning of popular science :Phrenology and the organization of consent in nineteenth-century britain. Cambridge history of medicine. Digitally print 1 pbk version ed. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.

De Giustino, David. 1975. Conquest of mind :Phrenology and victorian social thought. London: Croom Helm ; Totowa, N.J.

Van Wyhe, John. 2004. Phrenology and the origins of victorian scientific naturalism. Science, technology, and culture, 1700-1945. Aldershot, Hanst, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Lecture background notes

Gall, Spurzheim, and the "savage" skull

Within the network of phrenological clubs and societies established in many British cities and provincial towns though the 1820s, cranial specimens of the "savage races" of mankind were taken to exemplify with particular clarity the foundational tenet of the science: that skull shape was an infallible indicator of the relative strength of intellectual powers and emotion in the individual mind. This reflected phrenology's founders, Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) and Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1776-1832), having drawn heavily upon to yet reinterpret fellow anatomists Johann Friedrich Blumenbach and Peter Camper explanations of human variation. In arguing that over time humanity had been transformed by environmental into distinct varieties, both Blumenbach and Camper maintained that each variety typically exhibited different emotional and intellectual qualities in varying magnitude, but that no variety was characterized by any great difference in intellectual ability or moral character. However, Gall rejected Blumenbach and Camper's belief in humanity's natural equality, arguing that the typical shape of various African crania he had personally accounted for the wealth of derogatory testimony in circulation since the beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade. "I may get on the bad side of [these] highly esteemed men", he declared in an article published in the form of a letter to his medical colleague, Joseph von Retzer 1798, But maybe you will come to understand why some of our brothers cannot count over three; why others do not have a notion of private property; why eternal peace among mankind remains an eternal fantasy; etc.

Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, Gall's student and some time collaborator, whose arrival in Britain in 1816 was largely responsible for stimulating British interest in phrenology, similarly placed great weight on racial variations in cranial shape. After breaking with Gall in 1813 he sought to develop his own model of the organic locality of mental attributes in large part by examining institutional and private collections of " national crania" that he energetically and indiscriminately correlated with the testimony of voyagers, explorers and colonial officials.

Notably during his time in Britain in the second decade of the nineteenth century, Spurzheim visited to carefully examine the crania of Africans and other "savage" races; and like Gall, his teacher and some-time collaborator, he presenting his findings as refuting Blumenbach and Camper's defense of African intellectual and moral equality. In examining what he stressed were much greater numbers of skulls than these anatomists, he believed he had proved the existence of an under-developed organ of "numeration" in Africans, which accounted for the prevalence in pro-slavery writings of accounts of their being unable to perform even relatively simple mathematics: "their heads", he declared, were "…o rdinarily recessive in the place where that organ is located." What is more, he pointed out that in contrast to his extensive cranial investigations, Blumenbach and Camper's defense of African equality appeared to rest purely on the dubious basis of personal acquaintance with one or two men of African ancestry. Indeed, in his correlations of observational testimony with non-European cranial morphology, Spurzheim was more contemptuousness than Gall of African intellectual and moral capacity. Writing of the skull of a young congenitally deformed man he had examined in Amsterdam, he could not resist stressing that during his short life, the man had proved "so stupid that one could be forgiven for thinking that he was an African savage, even though it was well known that he was born in Amsterdam."

Yet what was to be particularly influential both within and beyond phrenological circles was the new use to which Spurzheim put what widely held to be Camper's greatest contribution to the study of human variation: his geometrically-based system for representing national variations in head and facial shape. The phrenologist adopted and refashioned Camper's system into a "tool to measure intellectual dispositions"- dismissing what the great Dutch anatomist had repeatedly maintained: that his invention was no more than a reliable device for creating accurate visual representations of the characteristic bodily form in people of different nationalities.

Combeian Phrenology

Phrenology overwhelmingly owed the credibility it gained in British society during the first half of the nineteenth century to George Combe, a Scots lawyer, co-founder of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society and author of The Constitution of Man (1828), the most popular and influential phrenological treatise of the nineteenth century.

Combe respectfully credited Gall and Spurzheim with having employed the same empiricist assumptions and procedures as those successfully used in contemporary medico-scientific circles to disclose regularities in other dimensions of physical and animate nature. Their research had clearly shown that the brain was indeed a collection of organs, the differential growth of which in a person, a family - or indeed a nation or race, determined their inherent qualities of mind and character.

However, Combe downplayed phrenology's innatist and deterministic elements, accentuating its potential as a science of mental improvement through behavioral conditioning. Indeed, during the 1820s he and his followers fashioned phrenology into a liberal sociopolitical reform movement, winning many converts amongst Britain's younger reformist minded medical practitioners, lawyers and small businessmen.

Phrenology in its Combeian formulation was still controversial. Its appeal was curtailed by its radical religious and political connotations in Britain's turbulent political climate during the 1820s and early 1830s. Just as they had criticized Gall and Spurzheim, the conservative leadership of medical institutions, such as the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons, continued to refute the idea that the relative influence of different intellectual qualities and emotions within the mental makeup of a person could be determined just by reading her or his cranial contours. Nor did Combe's mitigation of Gall and Spurzheim's determinism convince them or leading Churchmen that under phrenology's scientific gloss was anything other than a socially dangerous creed of fatalistic materialism.

Combe and his followers vigorously combatted their theological and scientific critics in the popular press and by publishing pamphlets and a journal, arguing the reverse was true. Phrenology was a practical science offering humanity a means of achieving hitherto unrealized social and moral improvement. They did not presume to question the reality of the soul. Rather, their science was concerned solely with investigating the empirically observable spectrum of human intellect and emotion, which Gall and Spurzheim had shown to be comprised of many discrete mental powers, each generated by a distinct mental faculty located in a specific cerebral organ. By gauging through cranial examination the relative size of each organ, and consequently the magnitude of its associated mental power, a skilled phrenologist could reliably determine the mental strengths and weaknesses of a particular individual, or the relative strength of shared personality traits within genetically related populations, or various social groups - the reasoning of phrenologists being that the dominance of particular mental traits largely explained why people pursued specific kinds of employment, lived virtuously or fell into a life of crime.

Once identified, undesirable personality traits could be managed through subjecting an individual or a group possessing these attributes to appropriately tailored regimes of mental exercise. Indeed, phrenologists held that their science gave parents and educators the ability to strengthen socially desirable traits in brains yet to reach maturity through mentally stimulating those organs in which the faculties from which useful or attractive attributes arose were located.

Phrenologists charged that it was these practical implications of the science that provoked the ire of conservative medico-scientific authorities. The science, they argued, cast into sharp relief that intellectual authority within institutions such as Britain's ancient universities, the Royal Society and London's Colleges of Surgeons and Physicians was not grounded in mental ability, but commanded on the basis of inherited wealth, dynastic connections and obsequiously supporting what most phrenologists regarded as an increasing anachronistic, unrepresentative and reactionary system of national government. They portrayed their most vocal critics as seeking to perpetuate self-interest through feudal-minded exclusivity, holding down the reservoir of mental talent in society at large - and especially within the commercial and professional classes. Within these classes the social and moral benefits of the science were understood and consequently gaining a strong following.

Phrenology construed their ambitions as innate intellectual ability and natural rights to greater participation in the governance and social development of colonial society. They also saw phrenology as offering a scientific basis for practically addressing colonial society's most serious problems.

Phrenology in Colonial Australia

From the 1830s, phrenology in its Combeian formulation aroused interest and won support in the Australian colonies for much the reasons as in Britain. In Sydney and Hobart it attracted a number of medical practitioners, lawyers, colonial officers and merchants conscious of being socially constrained by their middle class status. Phrenologically they could see themselves as ambitious by virtue of innate intellectual ability and naturally entitled to greater participation in the governance and social development of colonial society.

Naturally enough, colonial adherents of phrenology made much of the science's potential to more economically manage and reduce the dangers posed by a large convict population. For by the late 1830s about forty percent of the non-indigenous population of New South Wales were convicts. While it we cannot accurately assess in relative terms the prevalence of crime in Sydney and outlying regions during this time, both the colony's governing elite and its critics amongst the colonial bourgeoise and free landholders regarded the level of crime as morally intolerable, and the levels of policing it necessitated as a serious burden on government and the colony's economy. The fact that the majority of convictions were recorded against convicts and ex-convicts compounded anxiety, as did extensive newspaper reportage of outrages committed on the fringes of settlement by escapees.

Little wonder then that colonial phrenologists focused on addressing these anxieties in attempting to advance the science. George Moncrieff, for example, was a medical graduate of Edinburgh University appointed as an assistant government surgeon in Sydney in 1831. With the aid of Frederick Lascalles Wallace, a fellow Scot and Edinburgh trained physician, Moncrieff assembled a phrenological collection mostly of criminal skulls, including several he acquired in dissecting executed criminals. Moncrieff used the collection in lectures and demonstrations to argue that systematic phrenological examination of convict heads would disclose those men and women most likely to turn again to crime, and those likely to be rehabilitated through assigned to free settlers. Phrenological assessment could also determine how assignees could most profitably be put to work.

Moncrieff's demonstrations gained press reportage cautiously conceding his having proved " a degree the favorite proposition of the lovers of...[phrenology], that the moral conduct is very greatly dependent on the reasoning faculties." For Moncrieff's skulls were "...almost without exception, very deficient in that form and capacity of skull which is universally taken to be very necessary to the possession of strong powers of reasoning."

Besides phrenology's potential for managing convicts and reducing recidivism and crime, colonial advocates of the science emphasized how it could enrich the lives of masters, emancipists and free settlers. It offered employers the means of assessing the character and skill of labour before hiring. Parents could use the science to discover which trade or profession would best suit their children. In a colonial society where many potential spouses possessed what was seen as a morally dubious ancestry, phrenology could ensure a happy marriage and dynastic good fortune.

While colonial phrenologists emphasized these benefits of phrenology, it would appear that, again as in Britain, interest in the science was aroused by its speaking to deeper emotional needs.

Phrenology: Science or Secular Faith?

George Combe's attraction to phrenology stemmed from its offering him a depth of emotional satisfaction that he could not find in the established church or non-conformist circles. He had grown up in a strongly Calvinist household. As his biographer Charles Gibbon observed, "religion obtained a large share of his thoughts; and from childhood to the close of life his religious sentiments were deep and earnest". So much so that even after he became a phrenologist,

...self-examination was a habit of his, and the thoroughness with which he laid bare his nature was in itself some justification of his ambition. He was sometimes thought to be stern in his judgement of others; but he was most severe in his judgement of himself. His feelings of buoyant aspiration were alternated with those of despondency; and he had no sooner set down the hopeful view of himself...than he felt bitterly repentant for "being guilty of contemptible affectation in entertaining such thoughts. I regard myself as a weak little man, and feel as if every one I see were looking into me and beholding my nakedness."

Combe was a convert in the religious sense of the term. His acceptance of phrenology was gradual, and marked by successive revelations of the inadequacy of established religion and philosophy. Once committed to phrenology, Combe accentuated the capacity of phrenology to provide life with greater meaning and emotional satisfaction than established religion. His Constitution of Man (1828) offered a vision of the universe in which its rational creator had now revealed to humanity the means of moral improvement through knowing the strengths and weaknesses of cerebral inheritance. By phrenology individuals could maximize their psychic potential for familial care, sobriety and work discipline. By the same token, poverty, crime and sickness in society were largely the product of society refusing to acknowledge "laws plainly written in Nature for the direction of man."

However, Combe was not content just to present phrenology as reconciling the divine will as expressed in nature with the condition of man; he could not resist making plain that phrenology liberated the mind from the psychic burdens imposed by traditional Calvinist teachings on predestination, grace and original sin.

Combe's strictures on Calvinism were sympathetically received by many metropolitan phrenologists, and also prominent colonial champions of the science.

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