History and Information on Phrenology Part 2

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


Fowler and other believers would barnstorm into a town, offer to debate anyone in public about any aspect of phrenology, examine any stranger the townspeople chose to bring to them, and read the stranger's head while blindfolded. After such free demonstrations and entertainment, the phrenologists were available for private readings for a small fee, giving advice on every aspect of life about which they were questioned. This new "practical" phrenology had a theory that covered everything; its practitioners weren't interested in armchair reasoning and scientific debate. It supplied explanations about human behavior, and that was good enough for them.

Phrenology soon became a popular movement. Some traveling practitioners were reputable; others, like "His Royal Highness Prince Luximon Roy, M.D.," were charlatans. Unfortunately for the reputation of phrenology, too many were charlatans. The Fowlers survived because of their sincerity and dedication on the one hand and their showmanship and good business sense on the other. They published countless books, journals, charts, and pamphlets on subjects from Temperance and Tight-lacing to Sexual Science. They exhibited and sold casts of their collection of skulls and established a phrenological college to ensure the continuity of their work. Their views on health, education, diet, fashion, and the like affected the popular audience as much as the ideas of their more sober predecessors had affected policymakers of 19th-century institutions.

Phrenology played an important role in convincing governors of insane asylums that the brain, not the soul, was the seat of the mind; and that a diseased mind was a physical affliction, deserving of help. Insanity became a curable disease.

The penal system followed; criminals could be reformed by love and education. Crime was a form of insanity.

A prime target for phrenological reform was the educational system, where, phrenologists believed, the evils of society could be eliminated. With such people as Horace Mann, a close friend and follower of George Combe, they questioned educational methods. They reintroduced the ancient concept of "a healthy mind in a healthy body"; emphasized physical fitness, playgrounds, and ventilation in classrooms; encouraged variety in teaching, because every organ needed to be educated individually; and suggested in the early 19th century many of the precepts which later became identified with progressive education.

Women's rights, dignity of mothers, temperance--all were preached by phrenologists, whose remarkable female colleagues were responsible for great advances in the rights of women. Lydia Fowler, for instance, was the second American woman to obtain a medical degree and the first to be awarded a medical professorship.

During its term as the era's progressive science, phrenology accomplished much. Medicine and science would never be the same, nor would society's treatment of its less privileged members. With the advent of new knowledge about physiology, however, phrenology became old-fashioned and no longer respectable. Its distinguished past and widespread impact upon society were forgotten, and it became just another antique practice, like trepanning and leeching.

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