History and Information on Phrenology Part 1

About the antiquated science of phrenology, history and information of the study of bumps on the head.


What Is It?

A herald of modern thought in medicine, psychiatry, education, and penology, phrenology is now an antique science. It first emerged in the 19th century, as the far-reaching theory that the brain is "the organ of mind" and that each brain function is connected to a separate organ housed within the cranium; these are 37 in number and can be identified on the surface of the head. Years later the theory was commercialized until phrenology was identified with the measurement of bumps and hollows in the head for character reading, vocational guidance, marriage counseling, and personal development.


An eminent society doctor whose Vienna practice was so successful that he refused the honor of becoming court physician, Franz Joseph Gall could afford to indulge his curiosity. As a young man he had observed that people with prominent eyes usually had good memories. Years of experiment and observation led to the theory that there were 37 organs of the mind--faculties--which he identified as amativeness, combativeness, veneration, and the like. In 1796 he began a series of lectures on the subject, but these were closed by the government because his ideas were too revolutionary. Gall had relegated to the physical brain functions that had previously been considered the territory of the soul. In a period when mental illness was considered to be a type of possession (the mind was considered to be a spiritual entity, so loss of mind was equivalent to loss of soul), Gall postulated that the mind's faculties, organs of the brain, could be developed by exercise or weakened by abstinence. His lectures created a sensation as he toured Europe.

Gall's closest associate was Johann Kaspar Spurzheim, who strayed from the narrow theorization of his mentor into the realms of metaphysics and social reform. He taught that people are naturally good and envisioned a perfect race through education and reform.

The interest in phrenology spread to Scotland, where a young Edinburgh barrister named George Combe founded the first phrenological society, which consisted of many of the physicians and intelligentsia of Edinburgh. They published the Phrenological Journal, and Combe wrote such books as The Constitution of Man (1829), which was widely read on both sides of the Atlantic.

It was on the Atlantic crossing that phrenology underwent its final transformation. The ideas in The Constitution of Man had found their way to the New World via the elite societies in cultural centers like Boston and Philadelphia. When Spurzheim arrived in the U.S. for a lecture tour in 1832, he was received so enthusiastically that, in attempting to meet the demands of an eager public, he worked himself into a fever from which he died. He was given a hero's burial in Boston, attended by many dignitaries, including the entire Boston Medical Society.

While the educated and sophisticated mourned and formed new phrenological clubs which produced more scholarly journals, Orson Squire Fowler, a young theology student from Amherst, and his relatives, took phrenology to the church halls and schoolrooms of rural New England.

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