views updated May 18 2018


Phrenology, a science popular from the early to the mid-nineteenth century, was dedicated to the discernment of one's character or traits of personality from readingthat is, feeling the shape and size ofthe bumps on one's skull. As formulated by the German physician and anatomist Franz Josef Gall (17581828) and as popularized by his student and follower Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (17761832), phrenology was based on five main tenets: (1) the brain is the organ of the mindmental activity is produced by the structure and function of the brain, not through some spiritual or immaterial process; (2) the brain is not unitary but a congeries, or collection, of separate faculties; (3) these faculties are localized in different regions of the brain; (4) the activity of a mental faculty determines the size of the brain organ that represents it; and (5) the skull ossifies over the brain during infant development, so that an external examination of the size and shape of the bumps on the skull will reveal the size of the underlying brain organs. A staunchly materialistic doctrine, phrenology held that each mental faculty, envisioned by Gall as an innate instinct, produced a striking behavior or characteristic. Each innate mental faculty was in turn produced by its underlying brain organ, whose size depended on its activity and which could be revealed by its corresponding cranial bump.

Origins and Development

Gall was born in Baden, Germany, and studied medicine in Strasbourg and Vienna, where he established a successful medical practice and became renowned as a comparative anatomist. In the 1790s he began to develop the principles of phrenology out of his observations of his fellow studentsthose with protuberant eyes, he noted, had particularly good memoriesand of animals, as well as from dissection of human and animal brains. He also amassed a large collection of skulls, both human and animal, and busts, to support his theory. His method, however, depended on anecdote and striking confirmation rather than rigorous experimental testing of his theory. In Vienna, Gall lectured on phrenology as a "craniologist," but by 1805, joined by Spurzheim, he traveled around Europe to spread his ideas, eventually settling in Paris. There, between 1810 and 1819, he and Spurzheim published the four volumes and atlas of 100 engraved plates of Anatomy and Physiology of the Nervous System with Observations on the Possibility of Identifying Many Intellectual and Moral Dispositions of Men and Animals by the Configuration of Their Heads. In addition to propounding the principles of phrenology, the work constituted a major contribution to cerebral anatomy.

Gall identified twenty-seven basic mental faculties, each correlated with a brain organ: faculties such as veneration, wonder, wit, tune, memory, language, cautiousness, secretiveness, and philoprogenitiveness (love of children). He rejected the notion that the mind was a tabula rasaa blank slateand emphasized that each of these mental faculties was inherited as an innate instinct. He and the phrenologists who followed him tended to be interested in differences between individuals as well as between groups. Men and women, for example, were thought to possess different types of faculties.

Spurzheim, however, parted ways with his mentor, changing the content and focus of Gall's science in several important ways. First, Spurzheim actually coined the term phrenology, distinguishing it from physiognomy (reading character from the face) and craniology (measurement of the skull), thereby establishing its claim as a new science. Second, Spurzheim shifted the emphasis of phrenology from anatomy, which was Gall's main interest, to the religious, moral, and philosophical aspects of the science and to its political and social applications and consequences, a move that laid the groundwork for its popularity. He added new mental faculties to Gall's original twenty-seven and grouped the faculties into two major categories: feelings, including propensities and sentiments, and intellectual faculties, of perceptive and reflective kinds. Finally, Spurzheim abandoned Gall's emphasis on the innateness of the faculties and promulgated phrenology as a doctrine of self-help instead of determinism. In Spurzheim's formulation, education and exercise were the means to build up, train, or control the mental faculties and brain organs, and it was this more optimistic view that became part and parcel of popular phrenology. Leaving aside Gall's notion that human beings possessed such evil faculties as murder, Spurzheim promulgated the notion that people were intrinsically good and could be perfected through the practice of phrenology, altering their mental faculties through exercise.

To spread phrenological doctrine, Spurzheim traveled to Britain, where he met George Combe (17881858), a lawyer and moral philosopher in Edinburgh. Spurzheim's teachings converted Combe to phrenology, and he helped to popularize the science in Britain and North America. In 1828 Combe published The Constitution of Man Considered in Relation to External Objects, a work that formed the basis for orthodox phrenology and that developed Spurzheim's connection between phrenology, self-help, and social reform. At the height of phrenology's popularity in the early 1830s, there were more than two dozen phrenological societies in Britain alone. Numerous books, lecture series, and journals were devoted to the science, including the Phrenological Journal, which Combe edited in Edinburgh from 1832 to 1847. Thousands of serious believers espoused the doctrine, from the eminent doctors and scientists of the day to famous literary and cultural figures. Phrenology became central to the sociology and psychology of Herbert Spencer, the evolutionary science of Robert Chambers and Alfred Russel Wallace, and the anthropology of James Hunt and Paul Broca. Because of its associations with social and political reform, phrenology surged in popularity among the less educated classes as well.


As it became increasingly popularized and vulgarized, phrenology fell into disrepute and by the1840s was discredited by most physiologists. The increasing demand for phrenologists' services in assessment of character allowed charlatans to flourish as head readers, undermining the scientific integrity of the doctrine. Disunity and splits within the movement itself, antagonism from the religious establishment on account of its perceived materialism, and new discoveries about brain function in neuroanatomy and physiology all helped to push phrenology to the margins of science. In the second half of the nineteenth century, however, its popularity remained strong, especially in Britain and the United States. In America, for example, the entrepreneurial Fowler brothers, Lorenzo and Orson, established a successful business in character advice based on phrenological principles and sold china busts, models of the head marked with the divisions of the various phrenological faculties, that became popular among collectors. Phrenology also became associated with other popular psychological movements: in the combination of phrenology and mesmerism known as phreno-mesmerism, when the practitioner touched various parts of the subject's head, the subject evinced the traits supposedly connected to the underlying brain organs. Such continuing popular uses for phrenology show that it maintained its place in drawing room and parlor throughout the nineteenth century, even if it had lost scientific sanction.

Phrenology was relegated to the status of pseudoscience for political and social reasons as well as scientific ones. As medicine and the sciences of anatomy and physiology diversified and professionalized in the late nineteenth century, there was no longer any room in them for the kind of informally trained practitioner that many a popular phrenologist represented. Meanwhile, the work in localization of function in the brain, associated with Broca and with the German researchers Gustav Fritsch and Eduard Hitzig, while seemingly returning to Gall's principles, actually disputed them by localizing not complex mental faculties but much simpler sensory and motor functions. But debate over the extent and type of localization of brain functiona debate that phrenology can be understood to have startedcontinued throughout the twentieth century and is still not entirely settled.

See also Anthropology ; Philosophy of Mind ; Pseudoscience .


Combe, George. The Constitution of Man Considered in Relation to External Objects. Edinburgh: Anderson, 1828.

Cooter, Roger. The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science: Phrenology and the Organization of Consent in Nineteenth-Century Britain. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

. Phrenology in the British Isles: An Annotated Historical Bibliography and Index. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1989.

De Giustino, David. Conquest of Mind: Phrenology and Victorian Social Thought. London: Croom, Helm; and Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1975.

Gall, Franz Josef. On the Functions of the Brain and Each of Its Parts. Translated by Winslow Lewis Jr. Boston: Marsh, Capen, and Lyon, 1835.

Shapin, Steven. "Homo Phrenologicus: Anthropological Perspectives." In Natural Order: Historical Studies of Scientific Culture, edited by Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1979.

Spurzheim, Johann Gaspar. Phrenology, or the Doctrine of the Mental Phenomena. Boston: Marsh, Capen, and Lyon, 1833.

Young, Robert M. Mind, Brain, and Adaptation in the Nineteenth Century: Cerebral Localization and Its Biological Context from Gall to Ferrier. Oxford: Clarendon, 1970.

Nadine Weidman


views updated May 18 2018

phrenology As the first biological science of mind, phrenology became an ubiquitous feature of nineteenth-century medical and natural philosopical thought, and of popular culture. Breaking down the distinction between mind and body, phrenology exemplified the shift from the speculative means of studying the human psyche as a metaphysical entity, which characterized Enlightenment thought, to the empirical methods introduced by the new scientific naturalism. Condemned in establishment social and scientific circles as an atheistic, materialist pseudo-science, phrenology was consistently accorded marginal status, a position reflected in historiographies aiming to document science as a story of progress. Recently, however, historians connecting science, medicine, and culture have begun to recognize phrenology's significance as a medium through which a number of naturalistic and functionalist concepts reached a wide and popular audience.

Phrenology's innovative principles were first enunciated in Vienna and Paris, around the turn of the nineteenth century, by the physician, Franz Joseph Gall (1758–1828). Significant variations were later introduced by Gall's assistant, J. G. Spurzheim (1776–1832), who applied the neologism, ‘phrenology’, to the doctrine, and by the prolific Edinburgh phrenologist, George Combe (1788–1858). Gall established that the brain was the organ of mind — then a contestable view — and that it was composed of all the faculties that made up the human character. Using the analogy of the anatomical constitution of the body, he argued that the faculties were embodied in discrete cerebral ‘organs’, which were innate and inheritable, and that individual differences derived from variations in the physical organization of the brain. The principles underlying these hypotheses later became widely accepted. Two additional ‘craniological’ hypotheses, however, rendered the science empirically vulnerable, at the same time as they formed the basis of its popularity. Gall contended that the power of each faculty depended upon the size of the ‘organ’ which embodied it; and that the cranium reflected the form of the underlying cerebrum. Accordingly, character could be ‘read’ from the shape of the head. A primary task for craniology (Gall retained this term, along with ‘cranioscopy’ and ‘organology’) and phrenology was the ‘discovery’ and systematization of the faculties. Although Gall was a renowned cerebral anatomist, he insisted that the quasi-physiognomical method of correlating observed behaviour with variations in head shape was more revealing than dissection. Indeed, phrenologists consistently repudiated animal experimentation involving surgical trauma, for ethical as well as scientific reasons.

As the prototype for a normalizing physical anthropology, however, phrenology, with its value-laden stereotyping psycho-techniques, introduced new ethical problems. Gall's curiosity had initially been aroused by the differences he had noticed amongst individuals, but he subsequently began to compare criminals, lunatics, non-European ‘races’, and other ‘deviant’ groups with the gendered and Eurocentric norms that his craniological discourse was designed to construct. Indeed, the definition of normality was one of phrenology's major projects. As Spurzheim argued, this was a specifically medical project, for physicians had to understand the normal before they could recognize and cure the pathological. Spurzheim's phrenological modifications supplied people with new techniques both to construct normality and to achieve it in their own lives. Invoking the analogy of the great chain of being, he grouped the faculties into separate lobes of the brain, placing the ‘higher’ intellectual organs in the forehead, the sentiments — including ‘veneration’ — at the summit, and the ‘lower’ animal faculties (for example, sexuality and mothering) at the base of the brain. Henceforth, human types could be constructed according to the predominance of various groups of cerebral organs. With their Baconian faith in generalization from an accumulation of facts, phrenologists collected large numbers of representative skulls and busts. They established societies and museums, and entered educational institutions, where these reified racial, sexual, and class stereotypes were exhibited for all to absorb, where people could learn the art of head-reading for themselves, and whence phrenological character analysis would begin to enter the domain of popular culture.

Phrenology was given an additional impetus when Spurzheim and George Combe, invoking the Laws of Nature, effected its transformation into a moral and meritocratic science of self improvement and social reform. Spurzheim introduced the element of cerebral functionalism with his theory of the complex interaction of the faculties. Opposing Gall's deterministic conception of each faculty as either good or bad, Spurzheim argued that all of them were intrinsically good, abnormal behaviour resulting from imbalance, when the superior intellectual and moral organs had failed sufficiently to direct the ‘inferior’ organs. Although natural endowment was determined by heredity, appropriate ‘exercise’ — that is, behaviour — could strengthen the good faculties and weaken the bad: hence phrenology's application to criminal and lunacy reform. Moreover, the health and well-being of both the individual and the race could be improved by eugenic manipulation. For Spurzheim, the latter meant selective breeding, through the choice of marriage partners with propitious cerebral and physical constitutions. George Combe, however, later extended the eugenic theme with his addition of the Lamarckian theory of inheritance. In his best-selling tract, The Constitution of Man (1828), Combe popularized these hereditarian theories, providing a comprehensive explanation of the working of the ‘organic laws’, along with advice on how to obey them by applying phrenology to ‘the practical arrangements of life’.

Although phrenology never lacked vociferous opposition, its impact remains indisputable. Its vocabulary infiltrated the language, and its naturalistic character analysis and positivistic conceptual framework, employed by novelists and poets (including Honoré de Balzac, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Walt Whitman) entered the popular imagination. If by the 1840s neurophysiological experimentation had fatally undermined the specific details of its cranial cartography, phrenology's underlying principles had been absorbed by many of the progenitors of the human sciences, and incorporated into the new disciplines of functional sociology, differential psychology, neurophysiology, physical anthropology, and evolutionary theory. As the comparative anatomist, J. F. P. Blumenbach, once declared in relation to phrenology, these disciplines thus contained ‘much which is new and much which is true, but the new is not true and the true is not new’.

Jan Wilson


Cooter, R. (1984). The cultural meaning of popular science. Phrenology and the organization of consent in nineteenth-century Britain. Cambridge University Press.
Young, R. M. (1970). Mind, brain and adaptation in the nineteenth century. Cerebral localization and its biological context from Gall to Ferrier. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

See also craniometry; skull.


views updated May 14 2018


PHRENOLOGY in antebellum America became a significant influence on the thought of major reformers and literary figures. Perhaps more importantly, it also served as a practical system of psychological diagnosis, prognosis, and counseling that had a major impact on the lives of many individuals. Its roots lay in the late-eighteenth-century claims of the Germans Franz Josef Gall (1758–1828) and Johann Christoph Spurzheim (1776–1832), who argued that the brain is the organ of the mind and that specific mental faculties are located in specific parts of the brain. Many contemporaneous philosophers and physiologists made similar assertions. The phrenologists went further, however, and argued that the strength of each faculty determines the physical size and shape of the specific part of the brain in which it is localized and that the shape of the brain itself determines the shape of the skull that surrounds it.

European phrenological discourse largely revolved around further claims for the broad philosophical and social import of the science, and early American interest in phrenology developed similarly. Although the first American to advance phrenology was, apparently, the Kentuckian Charles Caldwell (1772–1853) of Transylvania University, Americans responded more fully to lecture tours of Spurzheim himself in 1832 and of the Scottish phrenologist George Combe (1788–1858) in the late 1830s. Many were impressed by phrenology's congruence with the "faculty psychology" of Scottish commonsense realism, the prevalent mental philosophy of the period, which emphasized an individual's specific psychological traits. Such considerations excited political and social reformers, including the Protestant clergyman Henry Ward Beecher, the newspaper editor Horace Greeley, the abolitionist and suffragist Sarah M. Grimké, Samuel Gridley Howe (who advocated for the blind and the "feebleminded"), and the educator Horace Mann. They were attracted to phrenology's concern for "self-knowledge" and "self-improvement" and grew to believe that they could use phrenological insights to promote their causes. Scholars have argued that these beliefs helped shape such individually focused reform movements as care for the insane, convict rehabilitation, sex education, temperance, vegetarianism, and women's rights. Literary figures also looked to phrenological insights about character and temperament, and critics have found phrenological influences in the works of such dissimilar authors as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman.

Other antebellum Americans—especially economically and socially striving white middle-class men and women—took phrenology's implications for the individual more personally. Many thus came to believe that an informed phrenological examination by a skilled observer of a person's skull could reveal much about his or her character and mental abilities, and could serve as the basis of expert guidance about an individual's prospects and behavior. As early as 1836, practical phrenologists—most notably the Fowler brothers, Orson Squire (1809–1887) and Lorenzo Niles (1811–1896); their sister, Charlotte Fowler Wells (1814–1901); and her husband, Samuel Robert Wells (1820–1875)—established thriving consulting practices in major American cities that offered pre-marital, career, and other forms of advice. The New York–based firm of Fowler and Wells also sold phrenological publications and plaster casts of phrenological skulls, and published (in addition to dozens of books and

pamphlets) the American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany from 1838 through 1911.

Itinerant phrenologists provided similar psychological services for rural America, and residents of many smaller cities and towns looked forward to their regular visits. Such stopovers often included free (or low-cost) public lectures to illustrate their science's value. But they emphasized private appointments for phrenological character readings. One especially active itinerant phrenologist was Nelson Sizer (1812–1897), who alternately worked with the Fowlers in New York and traveled through New England and the Middle Atlantic states. His memoir, Forty Years in Phrenology (1882), provides many significant insights into the science and its practice.

Many reformers' and literary figures' interest in phrenology began to wane by the 1850s. Although some observers claim this decline can be traced to growing mainstream medical and scientific criticisms of phrenology, it more likely stems from the reorienting of reform efforts away from the use of moral suasion to promote individual "self-enlightenment" (about which phrenology claimed to have something to say) to attempts to pass laws prohibiting or requiring specific behaviors. (Archetypically, temperance yielded to prohibition.) This decline had (at least initially) little impact on the Fowlers or the itinerant phrenologists, who continued through the 1880s and after to provide individual psychological guidance. After all, many scholars agree that the phrenologists derived their character readings less from their studies of their clients' skull shapes than from their sensitivity to all aspects of an individual's behavior, language, dress, and "body language" during their examinations. (In this way, Author Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes later emulated their practice.) The phrenologists hinted as much in private and emphasized the positive "spin" they gave to their readings to enhance their impact. Phrenological advice remained sought after by Americans for many years; a phrenological vocational guidance bureau operated in Minneapolis during the 1930s. Historians of psychology even argue that phrenology's emphasis upon the practical helped shape the scientific interests of the first academically trained American psychologists. These men and women abandoned their German teachers' overriding interests with "the mind" to emphasize mental function and ability and life in the world—just the concerns that the phrenologists stressed—and these concerns have dominated American psychology since the 1880s.


Davies, John D. Phrenology: Fad and Science: A Nineteenth-Century American Crusade. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1955.

Fowler, Orson S. The Practical Phrenologist: A Compendium of Phreno-Organic Science. Boston: O. S. Fowler, 1869.

Sizer, Nelson. Forty Years in Phrenology; Embracing Recollections of History, Anecdote, and Experience. New York: Fowler and Wells, 1882.

Sokal, Michael M. "Practical Phrenology as Psychological Counseling in the 19th-Century United States." In The Transformation of Psychology: Influences of 19th-Century Philosophy, Technology, and Natural Science. Edited by Christopher D. Green, Marlene Shore, and Thomas Teo. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2001.

Stern, Madeleine B. Heads and Headlines: The Phrenological Fowlers. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.

Michael M.Sokal

See alsoPsychiatry ; Psychology ; Self-Help Movement .


views updated Jun 27 2018


Phrenology was a science of brain, mind, and human nature that began in the late eighteenth century and endured in modified forms into the mid-twentieth century. The modern name, phrenology, was adopted in Britain in the late 1810s in place of earlier names such as craniology or the physiognomical system. The name is derived from the Greek roots phren, meaning "mind," and logos, meaning "study/discourse."

Phrenology was the creation of the Viennese physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758–1828). In the early 1790s Gall became convinced that he had discovered localized regionsor "organs" of the brain where innate mental faculties resided. He postulated twenty-seven faculties/organs from "impulse to propagation" to "mechanical skill" and "pride, arrogance, love of authority." The particular faculties of Gall's psychology and organology reflect the cases he witnessed in his patients and in local asylums, prisons, and hospitals. Each of these faculties/organs was given a number. Gall believed that the activity or power of a faculty must bedue to the size of its cerebral organ, just as strengthis proportional to the size of a muscle. Furthermore, Gall asserted that the shape of the skull followed the shape of the underlying brain. Therefore, Gall concluded, through an examination of the exterior of the head or skull of a person or animal it was possible to discover character, abilities, and so forth. Between 1805 and 1807 Gall conducted a highly successful lecture tour throughout Europe. In 1807 he settled permanently in Paris, where he continued to lecture and publish on his doctrine.

In 1813 Gall's longtime dissectionist and assistant, Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1776–1832), left Gall to begin his own lecture tour in Britain. In Britain, Spurzheim represented himself as the cooriginator of the doctrine in order to increase his own status. Even in the early twenty-first century phrenology in the English-speaking world is often described as the system of Drs. Gall and Spurzheim. Spurzheim introduced many significant changes to Gall's system, including renaming all of the organs/faculties to make them seem more benevolent and precise and arranging them in a hierarchical schema of orders and genera. Thus "impulse to propagation" became "Amativeness" and "murder" became "Destructiveness." Spurzheim also introduced several new organs/faculties. He presented the system as something that others should learn and practice themselves. He succeeded in making many converts in England and Scotland. Some of the most prominent of these were the

Edinburgh lawyer George Combe (1788–1858), his brother the physician Andrew Combe (1797–1847), and the radical London physician John Elliotson (1791–1868).

In the hands of the new British advocates the science evolved almost as far away from Spurzheim's ideas as his had from Gall's. They melded Spurzheim's moralistic doctrine of brain and character with the culture of British scientific societies to create a quasi-institutional science of human nature with local societies such as the Edinburgh Phrenological Society (1820–1870) or the Lancaster Phrenological Society (1843) and later national societies such as the Phrenological Association (1838).

As the practice of phrenology diffused throughout Britain it also diversified. There was a widespread naturalistic branch led by George Combe, who presented his phrenologically inspired philosophy of natural laws in The Constitution of Man (1828), which became one of the most widely read and discussed books of the century. Christian

phrenologists combined their religion with phrenology and created their own societies and periodicals. Many prominent phrenologists in the period from the 1820s to the 1840s were also social reformers and offered phrenology as both a mechanism of social control and critique of existing society. Even more numerous were the "practical" phrenologists who earned money and a measure of authority and respect from curious multitudes who paid a few shillings to hear a lecture or have their heads read to discover their fortune.

British phrenology diffused to the United States, France, Germany, and other countries in the 1840s via itinerant lecturers or natives converted in Britain taking it back to their homelands. Phrenology in Germany never became the widespread phenomena it was in Britain. In France, only Paris saw much phrenological activity. Phrenologists in these countries continued to use the lists of thirty-five or so organs/faculties and the white plaster busts demarcated with the organ locations that had been developed by British phrenologists. By the 1860s phrenology had mostly gone out of fashion in Britain and elsewhere. But in the 1870s the American Fowler family brought phrenology back to Britain and excited renewed interest in their own version of phrenology, derived from the earlier British phrenology. They established the British Phrenological Association in 1886. This final phrenological movement did not contain the same scientific pretensions as the earlier phrenology.

The phrenology movement had many consequences. It can be found in hundreds of works of literature from Charles Dickens to Edgar Allan Poe. Phrenology also accustomed many ordinary people to believe that natural laws had power over their own bodies. More visibly, phrenology made the localization of functions in the brain both notorious and suspect. Phrenology inspired later racial anthropologists to use head measurements, among others, to make racial comparisons and judgments.

See alsoCrime; Gall, Franz Joseph; Lombroso, Cesare; Race and Racism; Science and Technology.


Cooter, Roger. The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science: Phrenology and the Organization of Consent in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Cambridge, U.K., 1984. The most comprehensive history of phrenology, with a strong social historical bent.

Wyhe, John, van. "The Authority of Human Nature: The Schädellehre of Franz Joseph Gall." British Journal for the History of Science (March 2002): 17–42. The beginnings of phrenology thoroughly outlined.

——. Phrenology and the Origins of Victorian Scientific Naturalism. Aldershot, U.K., 2004. Discussion of phrenology and its impact on Victorian naturalism.

——. "Was Phrenology a Reform Science?: Towards a New Generalization for Phrenology." History of Science 42 (2004): 313–331. A critique of a widespread misunderstanding of phrenology.

Johnvan Wyhe


views updated May 14 2018


An approach, primarily of historical interest, to describing the thinking process based on the belief that different mental capacities are controlled by specific locations in the brain.

Although people recognize the brain as the center of mental processes, this contemporary view has not always been accepted. Philosophers and scientists have proposed different ideas throughout history about the process of thinking that have since been rejected as inaccurate. One such rejected approach was phrenology. Phrenologists believed that our different mental capacities were controlled by specific locations in the brain. Although scientists today recognize the general validity of this belief, the problem was that the phrenologists developed ideas that did not really describe the way the brain functions.

German scientist Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828), a recognized expert on anatomy, proposed the initial ideas on phrenology. He proposed that some areas of the brain were highly developed in certain individuals, which lead to specific behaviors. For instance, he claimed that pick-pockets were acquisitive (i.e., possessed the desire to own things) because of excess development of an area on the side of the head. One of Gall's contemporaries, Johann Spurzheim (1776-1832) identified 35 different mental faculties and suggested the location in the brain that related to each one. Each trait was claimed to lead to a certain behavior; the inclination toward that behavior could be detected by assessing the bumps on a person's skull. Scientists now recognize that the shape of the skull does not relate to the shape of the brain.

From the start, phrenology was controversial. For instance, the Roman Catholic church pressured the Austrian government to prevent Gall from lecturing in an area that the Church regarded as materialistic and atheistic. This tactic apparently served to increase the interest in phrenology. Although Gall developed his ideas with a serious scientific perspective, Spurzheim was more of an entrepreneur. He coined the term phrenology (which Gall never accepted), popularized it, and brought it to the United States. Spurzheim's goal was to reform education, religion, and penology using principles of phrenology. He died shortly after arriving in America, however. Spurzheim's work was continued by the British phrenologist George Combe (1788-1858), whose book on phrenology, Constitution of Man, was quite popular. According to psychology historian David Hothersall, Combe was highly respected by scientists in the United States. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Interestingly, at one point he was asked to justify slavery on the grounds that people of African descent had "inferior" skulls. Combe refused, noting that educated slaves were the intellectual equals of white people. Similarly, Combe rejected the second-class status of women, asserting that they were not intellectually or emotionally inferior to men.

Two enterprising brothers, Orson and Lorenzo Fowler, marketed phrenology as a means by which people could improve themselves. Unlike Gall, who believed that heredity dictated one's strengths and weaknesses, the Fowlers preached the environmental message that people could improve themselves by practice and could overcome weaknesses by virtue of their will. They wrote extensively for popular audiences and published a journal of phrenology that existed from the 1840s to 1911. They also set up a clinic in New York where clients could be tested; they toured the United States, giving advice wherever they went; and they emphasized the practical vision of phrenology, minimizing the scientific aspects of their field.

Meanwhile, scientists and philosophers quickly dismissed phrenological ideas. Leading biologists and

physicians of the day showed that the specific locations deemed important by the phrenologists were not associated with specific mental processes. Similarly, careful research in the area revealed that phrenologists were susceptible to biased observations in cases in which the research supported phrenological claims. During the 19th century, at the height of phrenology's popularity among the general public, scientists regarded the field with disdain and characterized it as a discipline dressed up to look like science. Nonetheless, phrenology exerted a positive influence on the fields of physiology and, later, biology, and sparked research on the relationship between the brain and behavior.

Further Reading

Cooter, Roger. The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Hothersall, David. History of Psychology. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990.


views updated May 11 2018


Phrenology, the practice of reading character from bumps on the skull, has enjoyed a long career as a sideshow amusement, but its origins are rooted in the most advanced currents of late-eighteenth-century neuroanatomy and psychology. Though seldom seen as a product of Enlightenment rationality, it represented a serious attempt to systematize human behavior and provide a material basis for theories of mind.

The founder of phrenology, the Austrian neuroanatomist Franz Joseph Gall (1758–1828), argued that the brain was divided into a number of discrete organs, each correlated with a single mental, behavioral, or physiological function. He assumed that the larger the region, the more strongly expressed that behavior would be. Gall made one additional assumption that was critically important for the popular success of phrenology: he conjectured that the skull conformed precisely to the shape of the brain beneath. In this way, Gall developed a system for using the external signs of the body to read the internal state of the mind, the bumps on the skull precisely reflecting the size and shape of the mental organs.

Gall was not the first to interpret the mind through the body. Before Gall, the physiognomist Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741–1801) claimed that all truths were "truths of the surface" and that all parts of the body reflected all others. Unlike his precursors, however, Gall adopted a rigorously empirical approach to mapping and identifying mental organs. Gall and his followers systematically recorded instances of individuals with pronounced talents to determine whether they displayed any distinctive features of the skull and delved into pathology to record instances of persons who had suffered traumatic head injuries associated with alterations in character. Eventually they mapped as many as forty-two discrete organs with coordinating behavioral traits, including alimentiveness (appetite, relish, greediness), amativeness (sexual love), veneration (worship, adoration, obedience), and vitativeness (clinging to life, resisting disease).

From the time of its introduction to the United States in the 1790s, phrenology found both a ready audience and a steady opposition. Objections to phrenology centered, in part, on its materialism and its implicit reduction of mind to little more than a product of physical conditions. But physicians such as Charles Caldwell (1772–1853) (a student of the preeminent early national physician and theorist of the mind, Benjamin Rush [1745–1813]) adopted phrenology as a centerpiece of an overarching medical view of society.

Indeed, the entertainment value of phrenology should not mask the fact that many Americans believed it held profound implications for American society. A raft of social reformers saw in phrenology a means of self-interpretation (resonant, many wrote, with the Protestant right of self-interpretation) and an opportunity to identify and overcome personal limitations. On the other hand, however, a starkly determinist strain emerged in which the phrenological organs were seen as inborn reflections of an unchanging character, and in characteristically American fashion, such deterministic readings became deeply inflected by considerations of race. Caldwell, for example, used phrenological analysis to support his contention that Africans were intellectually and morally inferior to Europeans. Phrenological thinking also underlay the work of craniologists such as Samuel George Morton, who quantified and compared the size of brains among the races while arguing for separate origins for the races. Gall's theory of the localization of cerebral function was a foundational concept in early psychology, but its cross-fertilization with conceptions of race and social hierarchy made it a remarkably resilient discipline for almost a century more.


Cooter, Roger. The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science: Phrenology and the Organization of Consent in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Richards, Graham. Mental Machinery: The Origins and Consequences of Psychological Ideas, Part I: 1600–1850. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Young, Robert M. Mind, Brain, and Adaptation in the Nineteenth Century: Cerebral Localization and Its Biological Context from Gall to Ferrier. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Robert S. Cox


views updated Jun 27 2018


A nineteenth-century proto-science claiming that character and personality could be ascertained by the shape and size of various areas or "bumps" on the skull, resulting from development of the brain centers. It derives from the traditional belief that character traits are reflected in physical appearance, and was associated with physiognomy, the study of outward aspects of the individual.

Phrenology was first systematically developed by Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) at the end of the eighteenth century. He made observations on hundreds of heads and skulls, and in 1796 lectured in Vienna on the anatomy of the brain and the elements of phrenology. His pupil J. K. Spurzheim continued his work in England and America, where phrenology vied with mesmerism and spiritualist phenomena as a popular subject of study during the nineteenth century. Initially, Gall and Spurzheim encountered opposition from some church leaders because their system appeared to imply that personality characteristics were inborn instead of being subject to modification by leading a good life.

Gall was an accredited physician with a detailed knowledge of the brain and nervous system, and he proposed phrenology to his colleagues for their serious scientific consideration. Phrenology became the province of many original thinkers of the day. However, phrenology also was popularized and practiced by non-medical individuals and even fairground charlatans.

Essentially, phrenology defined more than thirty areas of the skull related to such instincts as amativeness, philogeniture, habitativeness, affection, combativeness, destructiveness, alimentiveness, secretiveness, acquisitiveness, and constructiveness, and to such moral faculties as self-esteem, approbativeness, circumspection, benevolence, veneration, firmness, conscientiousness, hope, admiration, idealism, cheerfulness, and imitativeness.

The size and development of these areas implied strong or weak aspects of these instincts and faculties. The areas were measured by calipers and marked off on a chart, so that a complete character reading could be made.

Early exponents of animal magnetism (a precursor of hypnotism, but allied with psychic faculties) developed a new approach named "phreno-magnetism" or "phrenomesmerism." Operators claimed that when any phrenological area of the subject was touched during a trance, the subject acted out the particular faculty associated with that area. Thus, when the operator touched the bump of "combativeness," the entranced subject would exhibit belligerent behavior.

Although now discarded as a failed scientific option, phrenology flourished side by side with mesmerism and Spiritualism during the nineteenth century. Noted scientists were sympathetic, and additional supporters could be found among the literary elite such as Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe.

Interest in phrenology continued in America well into the twentieth century, and the British Phrenological Society, founded in 1886 by Lorenzo J. Fowler, was still in existence in the 1960s, though it had long ceased to affect the culture that surrounded it.


Chambers, Howard V. Phrenology. Sherbourne, 1968. Davies, John D. Phrenology, Fad and Science: A Nineteenth Century American Crusade. Archon, 1955. Reprint, Shoe String, 1971.

De Giustino, David. Conquest of Mind: Phrenology and Victorian Social Thought. London: Croom Helm; Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1975.

Gall, Franz J. On the Functions of the Brain and of Each of Its Parts: with Observations on the Possibility of Determining the Instincts, Propensities and Talents, or the Moral and Intellectual Dispositions of Men and Animals, by the Configuration of the Brain and Head. 6 vols. Boston, 1835.

Stern, Madeleine B. Heads and Headlines: The Phrenological Fowlers. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.

Wells, Samuel R. How to Read Character: A New Illustrated Handbook of Phrenology and Physiognomy. New York: Samuel R. Wells, 1871. Reprint, Rutland, Conn.: C. E. Tuttle, 1971.


views updated Jun 08 2018


Austrian physician Franz Joseph Gall (17581828) speculated that different mental functions are located in specific parts of the brain, therefore becoming the first person to complete the theory of cerebral localization. In his book The Anatomy and Physiology of the Nervous System in General and the Brain in Particular, a four-volume set published between 1810 and 1819, Gall set down the principles that focused on the contours and measurements of the human head as the basis of his doctrine on cranioscopy or phrenology. (The word phrenology stems from phrenos, or mind, and logos, meaning study.)

Gall believed it possible to establish individual behavior, personality, character, and strengths and weaknesses by studying the contours or bumps on the head. Complete with topographical maps depicting and illustrating his findings, his book and theories caused a sensation that still continues today. Many either embraced and hailed phrenology as a new science, or shunned or scorned it at best, as a "pseudoscience." Even today, there are some doctors, practitioners, societies, and websites advocating the authenticity and accuracy of phrenology.

Perhaps because it appeared so logical, with easy-to-follow maps and interpretations of them, phrenology provided a relatively simple diagnostic technique, and caught on as a raving sensation throughout parts of Europe and the United States. The supposed scientific, medical application of phrenology soon found its way into the hands of self-taught and self-styled "experts" who exploited it. Phrenology became the basis for many things, from the selection of marriage partners to employees for the workplace; as a diagnostic tool for mental illness to a way of determining personality profiles but mainly to generate money. Phrenology parlors were everywhere between 1820 and 1842, giving rise to many inventions. Phrenology machines made it possible for a person to get a detailed interpretation of their personality by allowing a helmet to descend upon his or her head and measure and read the bumps on the skull. Some of these machines and their history are preserved and on display in the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.


cooper, helen, and peter cooper heads, or the art of phrenology. london: london phrenology co. ltd., 1983.

gall and phrenology. [online] 22 november 2002.

hedderly, frances. phrenology, a study of mind. london: l. n. fowler & co. ltd., 1970.


views updated Jun 11 2018

phre·nol·o·gy / freˈnäləjē/ • n. chiefly hist. the detailed study of the shape and size of the cranium as a supposed indication of character and mental abilities.DERIVATIVES: phre·no·log·i·cal / ˌfrenəˈläjikəl/ adj.phre·nol·o·gist / -jist/ n.


views updated May 11 2018

phrenology XIX. f. Gr. phrḗn, phren- mind + -LOGY.