Gall, Franz Joseph

views updated May 18 2018

Gall, Franz Joseph

(b. Tiefenbronn, near Pforzheim, Germany, 9 March 1758; d. Paris, France, 22 August 1828)

neuroanatomy, psychology.

Gall’s father, Joseph Anthony Gall, was a modest merchant and sometime mayor of the village of Tiefenbronn. He was of Italian extraction (the original name was Gallo); and both he and his wife, Anna Maria Billingerin, were devout Roman Catholics. They intended Franz for the church; but although he remained nominally religious and even included an organ for religion in his theory of cerebral structure, it cannot be said that he was devout, that he led a morally conventional life, or that his work was well received by the church. His passions for science and gardening were complemented by strong appetites for money and women. He had many mistresses and once mentioned an illegitimate son. Gall’s books were placed on the Index; and he was denied a religious burial, even though he claimed that the existence of the “organ of religion” was a new proof for the existence of God.

Gall married a young Alsatian girl surnamed Lieser, who had cared for him when he had typhus; the marriage was an unhappy one. They had no children, but his wife’s niece and nephews lived with them at various times. After his wife died at Vienna in 1825, Gall married Marie Anne Barbe, with whom he had had a long-standing relationship. In 1826 signs of cerebral and coronary sclerosis appeared, and he died of an apoplectic stroke two years later.

Gall received his early education from his uncle, who was a priest, and in schools at Baden and Bruchsal. He began to study medicine at Strasbourg in 1777 and married while he was there. In 1781 he moved to Vienna, where he received the M.D. in 1785. In Vienna he carried on an active and successful medical practice which included many eminent patients. When he moved to Paris he was equally successful and numbered Stendhal, Saint-Simon, and Metternich, along with the staffs of twelve embassies, among his patients. On the other hand, he never held an academic post; and his relations with authority and orthodoxy were almost uniformly bad. His lectures at Vienna were proscribed by Emperor Francis I, and Napoleon took steps to restrict his influence in Paris. His doctrines were rejected by the Institut de France in 1808; and in 1821 he failed to gain admission to the Academy, although his candidacy was supported by Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.

Gall had a flamboyant personality and was something of a showman. He gave numerous courses of public lectures in Vienna, Paris, and other cities throughout Europe. He was heavily criticized for charging admission to his scientific demonstrations; but he was generous in spending his considerable earnings from this source and from his practice on the pursuit and publication of his research, as well as on his full social life. Gall was as vehement and effective a controversialist as he was a devoted bon vivant. Indeed, his life-style was consistent with his major intellectual preoccupation: the integration of the scientific problems of mind and brain with those of life and society.

The first publication of the principles of his 1ifework was a treatise on the philosophy of medicine in 1791. Gall developed his views in public lectures and demonstrations in Vienna between 1796 and 1801, when the emperor, in a personal letter, forbade these activities, on the ground that his doctrines were conducive to materialism, immorality, and atheism. Repeated appeals and a long petition and remonstrance to the emperor failed to alter the position. In 1800 Gall had been joined by Johann C. Spurzheim, who served as research assistant and collaborator; and in 1805 they went on an extended and highly successful tour of the intellectual centers of Germany, Switzerland, Holland, and Denmark, visiting schools, hospitals, prisons, and insane asylums to gather evidence and demonstrate their doctrines. Gall also visited his parents during this period; and he and Spurzheim eventually found their way to Paris in November 1807. Gall remained there until his death, except for a brief trip to England in 1823. He became a French citizen in 1819.

Beginning in 1800, with the assistance of Spurzheim, Gall made a number of important neuroanatomical discoveries. Their full significance was not appreciated until the development of histological and neurophysiological findings was integrated with the influence of his theoretical and speculative conceptions many decades after his death. The unifying theme in his neuroanatomical work was the conception of the nervous system as a hierarchically ordered series of separate but interrelated ganglia designed on a unified plan. Higher structures developed from lower ones, receiving reinforcement from other nerve pathways along the way. The gray matter was the matrix of the nerves, and the fibrous white matter served a conducting function. The inclusion of the cerebral cortex in this scheme was an important development away from lingering glandular and humoral conceptions. The spinal cord was, Gall argued, arranged in the same way; and he noticed its segmental structure and successive swellings. He also discovered the origins of the first eight cranial nerves and traced the fibers of the medulla oblongata to the basal ganglia. In the cerebellum he described the systems of fibers now known as projection and commissural. In the cerebral cortex he finally established the contralateral decussation of the pyramids and drew attention to the detailed anatomy of the convolutions.

Gall and Spurzheim’s investigations gave considerable impetus to the study of neuroanatomy, and both their findings and their general conceptions proved very important when they were later integrated with an evolutionary view of the nervous system and with the neuron theory. Gall vehemently opposed the contemporary practice of brain dissection by successive slicing and insisted on following the brain’s own structural organization. In 1863, when his best-known theories were almost totally discredited, his most effective critic, Pierre Flourens, recalled that when he had first seen Gall dissect a brain, he felt as though he had never seen the organ before; and he called Gall “the author of the true anatomy of the brain.”

Gall’s conceptions were importantly influenced by the theories of J. G. von Herder and involved strong emphasis on comparative and developmental studies, along with more general themes from Naturphilosophie, such as the unity of plan and analogies drawn from botany. In addition to his specific discoveries, Gall’s neuroanatomical work helped to alter the context of the study of the brain from the prevailing mechanical and humoral theories to an organic, biological perspective.

Yet it would be almost totally misleading to suggest that Gall’s best-known and most influential theories grew inductively out of his neuroanatomical research. On the contrary, he had published the basic principles of his theory of the functions of the brain in 1791: the plurality and independence of the cerebral organs. His public lectures contained sufficiently detailed and provocative findings to lead to their suppression. In 1798 he spelled out the main argument of his major work in a letter to Baron von Retzer. This was two years before he undertook detailed dissections of the central nervous system, work which he did as a consequence of his general doctrines.

Nor can it be argued that Gall’s neuroanatomical findings led to important elaborations or modifications of his general doctrines. It was pointed out by a commission of the Institut de France, including such eminent scientists as J. R. Tenon, Antoine Portal, R. B. Sabatier, Philippe Pinel, and Georges Cuvier, that the two aspects of his work were not inconsistent—but neither were they closely integrated. The commission sought to separate the two aspects of Gall’s work for philosophical reasons; but it was, nevertheless, correct in its evaluation of the relationship between them. The conception of the nervous system as a series of relatively independent ganglia was common to both, but neither aspect was based on the other. Gall granted that any doctrine of the functions of the brain which was incompatible with its structure must necessarily be false. Nevertheless, the fundamental principle of his lifework was that it was essential that the issue be approached from the other side. He said that the knowledge of the functions had always preceded that of the parts and that all his physiological discoveries had been made without the anatomy of the brain; these discoveries might have existed for ages without their agreement with the organization of the brain having been detected. The commission was striking at the heart of Gall’s doctrine by refusing, in principle, to consider the relationship between structure and function; but he and Spurzheim had presented no compelling evidence of that relationship.

Gall’s theory of the functions of the brain and each of its parts calls for careful historical treatment, since the important features of his work and his influence are bounded on all sides by what are now seen as undoubted absurdities, although this was not at all clear in the context of contemporary science. With one notable exception, none of his localizations of cortical functions has been substantiated by subsequent research. The detailed methodology on which he based his physiological conclusions provides an excellent case study of the dangers of anecdotal and correlative methods, uncontrolled by statistical tests and attempts to seek out potentially falsifying evidence. Finally, the popular application of his theories in the form of phrenology soon came to be seen as a classic example of pseudoscience and its practice a form of quackery.

Yet those who would attempt sharply to demarcate science from pseudoscience and the internal history of science from external factors would stumble as badly over Gall’s work as they have over Robert Chambers’ and Herbert Spencer’s. Embedded in his crude methodology and his detailed, although wholly incorrect, findings were a set of principles and a biological, adaptive, and functional approach to the study of mind and brain which have led to the recognition of his work as seminal in three spheres: (1) the origination of the modern doctrine of cerebral localization of functions, (2) the establishment of psychology as biological science, and (3), at a more general level, the use of his work and its popularizations as the vehicle for a naturalistic approach to the study of man which was very influential in the development of evolutionary theory, physical anthropology, and sociology. These points should be borne in mind when considering the curious amalgam which makes up Gall’s systematic writings.

His psychophysiology had its origins in childhood experiences. As a schoolboy he noticed that those who were better than he at memorizing had “large flaring eyes.” It was a popular contemporary doctrine that all aspects of character had external signs, and the initial theoretical context for his ideas was therefore a straightforward physiognomical correlation of the kind which J. C. Lavater had made popular—it had no detailed causal basis. When Gall later noticed the same correlation among his fellow medical students, he reflected on a possible physiological basis for it. Every physiological function had its own organ, as did each of the five external senses. Why should it not be the same with the talents and propensities of men? If this could be established, a doctrine of the nature of man could be founded on a doctrine of the functional organization of the brain. Localization of cerebral functions was also a long-held idea with contemporary exponents, but neither the functions nor their localizations were being actively studied in detail; Gall set out to till an existing, although fallow, field.

He immediately found himself faced with a number of conceptual boundary disputes; and in attempting to work out a consistent theory he had to address himself to fundamental problems in the borderlands of ontology, epistemology, psychology, physiology, and general biology. These issues lie unresolved at the heart of the assumptions of modern science and its philosophy of nature: mind and body, primary and secondary qualities. Gall pioneered the hope that the problems of a dualistic ontology and epistemology could be resolved by taking a biological point of view. The most fundamental result of his work stems, therefore, from the way he asked the question. He treated the problem of brain and mind analogously to that of any other organ and its function, thereby bringing the mind-body problem into the domain of dynamic physiology and biology. If one traces the concept of “function” as applied to psychological and social phenomena back from its late-nineteenth and twentieth-century uses, one finds its source in the writings of Gall and his followers.

This is not to say that Gall was original in arguing that the brain is the organ of the mind or that mental phenomena should be treated as analogous to physiological function. As he pointed out in his petition to Francis I, the conception of the brain as the organ of mind had been reiterated since the beginnings of anatomy and physiology. In Gall’s own period the idéologues had treated mental phenomena in physiological terms, but it was Gall who united these conceptions and treated them in consistently biological terms. He argued that the sensationalism of Étienne Condillac and the idéologues, especially P. J. G. Cabanis and A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy, could not account for the observed differences between the talents and propensities of individuals and those between species. The origins of character and personality could not be adequately explained by experience alone. Gall claimed that the causes of the behavior of men and animals were innate, although modifiable by experience. Sensationalist psychology had been elaborated in opposition to idealist belief in innate ideas, but Gall was not treating the problem from a primarily epistemological point of view. He saw the talents and propensities as inherited instincts based on cerebral endowment.

Gall’s organic conception was also opposed to the related doctrine of Charles Bonnet, that sensationalism could be related in mechanical terms to the fibrous connections in the nervous system. Thus, Gall rejected both sensationalism and its putative cerebral basis. Instead of synthesizing complex mental phenomena from simple ones by the mechanism of the association of ideas connected in the fibers of the nervous system, Gall argued for unitary faculties based on cerebral ganglia which served as centers for each determinate talent or propensity. Of course, his faculty psychology raised at least as many problems as it solved, but there seemed to be more hope of solving them in a biological context which was relatively free from attempts to interpret mental phenomena by analogy to the concepts of corpuscular physics.

Gall was interested not only in the intellectual functions but also in the passions, and it was not generally conceded that the latter had their seat in the brain. For example, the eminent physiologists Cabanis and Xavier Bichat still claimed that the passions had their seat in the thorax and abdomen. Gall claimed that the brain was the organ of all mental functions. As a result of his systematic investigations and his consistent reiteration of this claim, he succeeded in gaining final acceptance for the principle. Once again, it was Flourens who granted that although the proposition that the brain was the exclusive organ of the mind existed in science before Gall appeared, it was as a result of his work that it reigned in science by the middle of the nineteenth century.

Even more important was Gall’s insistence that neither the faculties nor their localizations in the brain were known and that they had to be determined by empirical, naturalistic studies of men in society and of other species in nature. The prevailing categories of psychological analysis were derived from philosophical—especially epistemological—preoccupations: reason, memory, imagination, perception, and so on. These were concerned with the attributes of mind in general, not with a differential psychology which could account for individual and species differences. Gall called for faculties, the different distributions of which determine the behavior of different species of animals, and the different proportions of which explain individual human differences. The result of the application of this principle was the origination of the systematic empirical search for a natural classification of fundamental variables in animal and human nature and personality. When Alexander Bain turned to this issue again in 1861, he described phrenology as the only system of character hitherto elaborated; and subsequent research in personality theory, as well as comparative psychology, can be traced, in large part, to Gall’s direct or indirect influence. Although the issues remain unresolved—and can be argued to have no unique scientific resolution—it was Gall who raised them in their modern form.

In his attempt to arrive at a list of determinate faculties, Gall sought out people who showed extremes of talents or other striking propensities, including manias. He related these to the behavior of animals; and although his analogies are often extremely farfetched, his approach extended the comparative method to psychology in a systematic way. His extensive case records from insane asylums, prisons, schools, and public life were supplemented by large collections of craniums and plaster casts, the last of which was bought by the French government and deposited in the Musée de l’Homme. Gall concluded that men and animals shared nineteen of the twentyseven fundamental faculties.

The results of his work were published at his own expense in four quarto volumes and an atlas of 1,000 plates as Anatomie et physiologie du système nerveux en général, et du cerveau en particulier, avec des observations sur la possibilité reconnoitre plusieurs dispositions intellectuelles et morales de l’homme et des animaux, par la configuration de leurs têtes between 1810 and 1819. (Spurzheim was coauthor of the first two volumes, but they parted company after that.) An inexpensive edition appeared between 1822 and 1825 as Sur les fonactions du cerveau et sur celle de chacune de ses parties; the atlas was omitted and a volume of replies to his critics was added. Gall summarized his theory in four fundamental suppositions: (1) that the moral and intellectual faculties are innate; (2) that their exercise or manifestation depends on organization; (3) that the brain is the organ of all the propensities, sentiments, and faculties; (4) that the brain is composed of as many particular organs as there are propensities, sentiments, and faculties which differ essentially from each other. The Achilles heel of the elaboration of these suppositions—the “special organology”—was a set of related beliefs: that the activity of a given organ varies with its size, that all of the cerebral organs impinge on bony structures of the cranium, and that in most cases the cranium faithfully reflects the conformation of the underlying cerebrum. The result of these subsidiary beliefs was the pseudoscience of cranioscopy, later popularized as phrenology—the reading of character from the conformation of the skull. During the nineteenth century this progressively became an object of ridicule; and although there are still practitioners of phrenological delineation, its critics have obscured. Gall’s more important contributions.

Gall was cautious—but not cautious enough—about making inferences to the brain from the study of the skull. In practice, most of his faculties were discovered by correlating a striking talent, propensity, or passion with prominences on the skulls of men and animals. From this evidence he went on to infer the existence of an innate faculty and a cortical organ. Having formulated a hypothesis about a given faculty, he collected a great deal of evidence to confirm his correlations. This was done uncritically; and although the theoretical aspects of his systematic edifice have passed into the foundations of the assumptions of modern psychology, neurophysiology, biology, and social theory, the structure itself has not stood. Gall made no claim to finality for his list of faculties or for precision in his cerebral localizations. He considered the detailed working out of the system to be a problem for the future. In any case, he was more interested in the nature of the functions than in their localizations. His opponents rejected the entire basis of his work, while his followers prematurely codified his system.

Neither Gall’s detailed classification nor his faculty psychology have appealed to subsequent investigators. However, the questions which he asked have remained leading topics in neurology, psychology, and ethology. Thus, for example, his localization of sexual passion in the cerebellum has been totally discredited by experimental findings; but the study of the neurophysiological basis of sexual and other emotional functions plays a leading part in current research in physiological psychology. Similarly, although it was set aside for over a century, his insistence that the study of the organization of the brain should march side by side with that of its functions is once again the basic principle of biological psychology. Whatever the judgment of Gall’s contemporaries, the organ-function paradigm which he elaborated for the study of man in society has become the predominant approach.

The reception of Gall’s doctrines and his influence are as confusing and complex as would be expected from the intimate mixture of important principles, methodological crudity, and detailed nonsense which made up his work. There was vehement and sustained opposition from those who saw his theories leading to materialism, immorality, fatalism, and atheism. His division of the mind and its organ into separate compartments was anathema to those who followed Descartes in claiming that the mind is indivisible. At the other extreme, sensationalists opposed his faculty psychology and his belief in innate instincts Physiologists who were beginning to find experimental support for the interpretation of the nervous system in sensory-motor terms could not, in principle, find any basis for Gall’s conception of the fundamental faculties. These promising findings began to be made only in 1822; and Gall criticized both the methods and the generalizations of experimental neurophysiology, arguing that they would lead to the reduction of life and character to sensibility, motion, and association. He was quite prescient in arguing that those who took this approach would fail to address themselves to fundamental human problems.

Gall was preoccupied with the psychological question “What are the functions of the brain?” while the experimentalists were concerned with the narrower—but scientifically more fruitful—question of how the brain functions. Since 1822, the approaches of experimental neurophysiology and of personality psychology have diverged, and efforts to relate them have not been notably successful. As the experimental tradition developed, it lost sight of the significance of Gall’s questions and concentrated on the localization of sensory, motor, and associative functions, with little thought about how they were to be related to the concepts of the layman, thereby reverting to the analytic categories which Gall had set aside at the beginning of his inquiries. The model of the elements of mind as analogous to corpuscular physics prevailed over the holistic characterological approach.

There were many devotees of Gall’s special organology and his cranioscopic method, especially in France, Britain, and America. Societies with eminent medical and scientific members sprang up and were immensely popular in France and Britain until the 1840’s and even later in America. Although their influence is not significant for the history of science in the narrow sense, failure to appreciate the importance of popular phrenology would blind one to the most important vehicle of scientific naturalism in the decades before evolutionary theory assumed this role. The list of eminent political, philosophical, and literary figures who took it seriously is astonishing and includes G. W. F. Hegel Otto von Bismarck, Marx, Balzac, the Brontës, George Eliot, President James Garfield, Walt Whitman, and Queen Victoria. Its leading popularizers were Spurzheim and George Combe; and it has been said that homes in Britain which contained only three books would have the Bible, Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress, and Combe’s System of Phrenology. The particular influence of phrenology can be traced in the writings of educationalists, advocates of public health, penal reform, and improvements in the care of the insane, as well as in the scientific writings of Auguste Comte, G. H. Lewes, Spencer, Chambers, and A. R. Wallace. The adaptive, biological view of man and mind was carried by phrenology into the formulation of theories of evolution and into the use of biological analogies in theories of society. This is most striking in psychology, where Gall was the main figure in altering the context of the study of mind from that of epistemology to that of general biology.

More straightforward scientific influences can be traced in physical anthropology—especially its preoccupation with skulls throughout the nineteenth century—and in somatist psychiatry’s fundamental belief that all mental disease is brain disease. Of course, the most obvious influence of Gall’s work lay in neurology and neurophysiology. Beginning in 1861 with Paul Broca’s clinicopathologic localization of the lesion causing aphasia in the place where Gall had localized the faculty of “memory for words,” localization of function has been the central conception in neurology, as it later became in neurosurgery. Once again. Gall’s specific concepts were set aside, while his general principles were adopted. The same can be said of the localization of functions in experimental neurophysiology, which began in 1870 with the work of Gustav Fritsch and Eduard Hitzig and was carried on by workers in France, Germany, Italy, Britain, and America. This tradition was called, only half jokingly, “the new phrenology” by C. S. Sherrington, who claimed that all students of the correlations of brain, mind, and behavior are phrenologists of sorts.

In 1857, as Gall’s reputation was waning, G. H. Lewes wrote a history of the development of thought on positivist lines. Although he was critical of Gall’s detailed findings, he said that by placing man firmly in nature, Gall had rescued the problem of mental functions from metaphysics and made it one of biology. Gall’s vision of psychology as a biological science may be said, he concluded, to have given the science its basis. Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, the founders of modern sociology, also acknowledged Gall’s fundamental contribution to their views on man and society. His theory played an important role in the evolutionary theories of Robert Chambers, Spencer. and A. R. Wallace, the last of whom considered the neglect of phrenology as one of the greatest failures of nineteenth-century thought. But in rejecting the details of his work, modern science, and its twin brother scientism, embraced Gall’s principles and his point of view, as a result of which he can be said to have made a central contribution to scientific naturalism in the biological and human sciences. Along with astrology, alchemy, Hermetism, mesmerism, and spiritualism, Gall’s science and its manifold influence challenge any attempt to establish neat demarcations between the origins, the substance, the applications, and the validity of scientific ideas in their philosophical, theological, and social contexts.


I. Original Works. Gall’s writings include philosophisch-medicinische Untersuchungen über Natur und Kunst im kranken und gesunden Zustande des Menschen (Vienna, 1791); Recherches sur le système nerveux en gènéral, et sur celui du cerveau en particulier; mémorie présenté à l’Institut de France, le 14 mars 1808; suivi d’observations sur le rapport qui en a été fait à cette compagnie par les commissaires (Paris, 1809), written with Spurzheim; Anatomie et physiologie du système nerveux (see text for full title), 4 vols. and atlas (Paris, 1810–1919); Sur les fonctions du cerveau et sur celles de chacune de ses parties, 6 vols. (Paris, 1822–1825), English trans. by W. Lewis, Jr., with a biography including the letter to Baron von Retzer, 6 vols. (Boston, 1835); and Gall et al., On the Functions of the Cerebellum by Drs Gall, Vimont and Broussais, English trans. by G. Combe, including Gall’s petition and remonstrance to Emperor Francis I (Edinburgh, 1838). Gall’s letters have been published in M. Neuburger, “Briefe Galls an Andreas und Nanette Streicher,” in Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin, 10 (1917), 3–70; and E. Ebstein, “Franz Joseph Gall im Kampf um seine Lehre,” in C. Singer and H. E. Sigerist, eds., Essays on the History of Medicine Presented to Karl Sudhoff (London-Zurich, 1924), pp. 269–322.

II. Secondary Liteature. The best single source is O. Temkin, “Gall and the Phrenological Movement,” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 21 (1947), 275–321. See also the unsigned “Researches of Malcarne and Reil—Present State of Cerebral Anatomy,” in Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, 21 (1824), 98–141; and “Recent Discoveries on the Physiology of the Nervous System,” ibid., 141–159; A. Bain, On the Study of Character, Including an Estimate of Phrenology (London, 1861); M. Bentley, “The Psychological Antecedents of Phrenology,” in Psychological Monographs, 21 , 4, no. 92 (1916), 102–115; C. Blondel, La psychophysiology de Gall (Paris, 1914); [R. Chevenix], “Gall and Spurzheim—Phrenology,” in Foreign Quarterly Review, 2 (1828), 1–59; G. von Bonin, Some Papers on the Cerebral Cortex (Springfield, Ill., 1960), which includes the papers of Broca and of Fritsch and Hitzig on cerebral localization; K. M. Dallenbach, “The History and Derivation of the Word ‘Function’ as a Systematic Term in Psychology,” in American Journal of Psychology, 26 (1915), 473–484; P. Flourens, Examen de la phrénologie (Paris, 1842), English trans. By C. De L. Meigs (Philadelphia, 1846); and De la phrénologie e des études varies sur le cerveau (Paris, 1863); [J. Gordon], “Functions of the Nervous System,” in Edinburgh Review, 24 (1815), 439–452; H. Head, Aphasia and Kindred Disorders of Speech, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1926); C.W. Hufeland, Dr. Gall’s New Theory of Physiognomy (London, 1807); J. Hunt, “On the Localisation of Functions in the Brain, With Special Reference to the Faculty of Language,” in Anthropological Review, 6 (1868), 329–345, and 7 (1869), 100–116, 201–214; T. Laycock, “Phrenology,” in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 8th ed. (1859), XVII, 556–567; G. H. Lewes, “Phrenology in France,” in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Maagazine, 82 (1857), 665–674; and The History of Philosophy From Thales to Comte, 3rd ed., 2 vols. (London, 1867–1871); A. Macalister, “Phrenology,” in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9th ed. (1885), XVIII, 842–849; C. S. Sherrington, “Sir David Ferrier, 1843–1928,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society, 103B (1928), viii–xvi; J. Soury, Le système nerveux central (Paris, 1899); H. Spencer, Principles of Psychology (London, 1899); J.R. Tenon et at., “Report on a Memoir of Drs Gall and Spurzheim, Relative to the Anatomy of the Brain, Presented to and Adopted by the Class of Mathematical and Physical Sciences of the National Institute,” in Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, 5 (1809), 36–66; A.R. Wallace, The Wonderful Century, Its Successes and Failures (London, 1898); and S. Wilks, “Notes on the History of the Physiology of the Nervous System, Taken More Especially From Writers on Phrenology,” in Guy’s Hospital Reports, 3rd ser., 24 (1879), 57–94.

On the context of sensationalism and sensory-motor physiology, see O. Temkin “The Philosophical Background of Magendie’s Physiology,” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 20 (1946), 10–35; on Gall’s neuroanatomy, see Temkin’s “Remarks on the Neurology of Gall and Spurzheim,” in E. A. Underwood, ed., Science, Medicine and History, Essays in Honor of Charles Singer, 2 vols. (London, 1953), II, 282–289. See also E. H. Ackerknecht and H. V. Vallois, Franz Joseph Gall, Inventor of Phrenology, and His Collection (Madison, Wis., 1956); J. C. Greene, “Biology and Social Theory in the Nineteenth Century: Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer,” in M. Clagett, ed., Critical Problems in the History of Science (Madison, Wis., 1959); G. Jefferson, Selected Papers (London, 1960); E. Lesky, “Structure and Function in Gall,” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 44 (1970), 297–314; W. Reise and E. C. Hoff, “A History of the Doctrine of Cerebral Localization,” in Journal of the History of Medicine, 5 (1950), 51–71, and 6 (1951), 439–470; R.M. Young, “The Functions of the Brain: Gall to Ferrier (1808–1886),” in Isis, 59 (1968), 251–268; and Mind, Brain and Adaptation in the Nineteenth Century: Cerebral Localization and Its Biological Context From Gall to Ferrier (Oxford, 1970); and O.L. Zangwill, “The Cerebral Localization of Psychological Functions,” in Advancement of Science, 20 (1963–1964), 335–344.

Robert M. Young

Gall, Franz Joseph

views updated May 14 2018

Gall, Franz Joseph



Franz Joseph Gall (1758–1828), German anatomist, founder of cranioscopy (later known as phrenology), and physician, was born in the grand duchy of Baden and died at Montrouge near Paris. He was the sixth child of a merchant. After the usual schooling, he studied medicine first at Strassburg and later at Vienna, where he was graduated in 1785.

He began his medical practice in Vienna and at the same time studied the healing powers of nature, the subject of his first book, Philosophischmedicinische Untersuchungen iiber Natur und Kunst im kranken und gesunden Zustande des Menschen (1791). In it, Gall discussed the relationship between body and soul; the latter was located in the brain and was the seat of ideas. This concept led him to the notion of the cerebral localization of mental faculties, and he devoted the remainder of his life to exploring this idea.

There was at the time great interest in methods of determining character and temperament from external bodily configurations, especially the facial (physiognomy), and Gall gradually evolved a new method called “cranioscopy,” combining the concepts of cerebral localization with the analysis of bodily configurations.

He argued that faculties or talents are inborn and dependent upon cerebral structures; therefore the brain is made up of as many “organs,” or areas, as there are moral and intellectual qualities. These “organs” are on the cerebral surface, and as their size is reflected accurately by the overlying skull, they are palpable. He selected and located the “organs” by his empirical observations: having observed that a good memory is associated with protruding eyes, he therefore postulated that the memory organ is on the cerebral orbital surface and its hypertrophy pushes out the eyes. Character and intellect are represented by 27 organs, or psychic qualities, sharply delineated on the cranial surface.

About 1796 Gall began lecturing on cranioscopy in Vienna. Although the theory won great popu larity, its materialism, manifested by an attempt to relate mind to matter, also incited opposition, so that in 1802 Gall’s teaching was banned for religious reasons. Gall was joined in 1804 by Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, who had recently received his medical degree and who helped with the dissections of the nervous system that Gall undertook. Unlike other physiognomists, Gall attempted to create a scientific basis for his theory.

Seeking a more congenial atmosphere, Gall and Spurzheim left Vienna in 1805, and after an extended tour of Germany and neighboring countries, where their lectures excited widespread controversy, they settled in Paris in 1807. As in Vienna, Gall established an extensive medical practice with many famous patients, and he also resumed his lecturing and writing. In 1808 he published his Discours d’ouverture au cours de physiologie du cerveau (1808) and in the same year prepared with the help of Spurzheim a neuroanatomical memoir which was assessed by a group of distinguished French scientists. On the whole the judges were favorably impressed, and in the following year the report, with replies to the criticisms made by the assessors, was published (Gall & Spurzheim 1809). In 1810 Gall’s most important and comprehensive work on neuroanatomy and cranioscopy began to appear, entitled Anatomie et physiologie du système nerveux en general … (1810–1819). Spurzheim helped with the first and second volumes only, for in 1813 he left France to popularize “phrenology,” as he, but not Gall, came to call cranioscopy. Gall’s last publication was a revised edition of Anatomie et physiologie. … He died of a cerebrovascular accident and was buried in Pere-la-Chaise cemetery in Paris: his skull is preserved in the Musee de I’Homme.

Gall had an insatiable desire to learn and claimed that he was not guided by a desire for power, honors, or riches, although some of each came his way. He was perfectly sincere, if somewhat uncritical, in his ideas of brain function and was by no means a quack as is often thought; the stigma earned by phrenology was largely due to its popularizers, who claimed that phrenological examination could be used in career selection, for all kinds of prophecies, in choosing members of parliament and other professional men, etc. Gall’s own intellectual abilities, his powers of observation, and his honesty, integrity, and independence in matters of principle were outstanding. As a product of the eighteenthcentury Enlightenment, he was a social reformer, and he emphasized the need for medical ethics. He deduced moral rules from his phrenology and called for state educational systems and reform of current methods of handling criminals and lunatics.

Gall’s influence was widespread. His anatomical investigations and cranioscopy turned attention to the brain, and he had an important influence on brain dissection and neuroanatomy in general in the nineteenth century. Moreover, phrenology first popularized the modern concept of cerebral localization of function, although it made no specific contribution to the concept. Gall’s basic idea was right, but for the wrong reasons. Phrenology was also important in the development of scientific psychology, of anthropological investigations of the skull, and of criminology.

Phrenology retained popularity throughout the nineteenth century, and societies furthering its practice still exist today. Apart from its general effects upon the study of anatomy and physiology at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it has played no further role in science. However, its influence on social reform, political groups, religion, philosophy, and literature has been extensive, especially in the United States and Britain.

Edwin Clarke

[See alsoNervous System, article onStructure and Function of the Brain; and the biographies ofBroca; Flourens; Lashley.]


(1791) 1800 Philosophisch-medicinische Untersuchungen uber Natur und Kunst im kranken und gesunden Zustande des Menschen. 2d ed. Leipzig: Baumgartner.

1808 Discours d’ouverture …ail [cours] sur la physiologie du cerveau. Paris: Didot.

1809 Gall, Franz Joseph; and Spurzheim, J. GasparRecherches sur le systeme nerveux en general, et sur celui du cerveau en particulier. Paris: Schoell.

1810-1819 Gall, Franz Joseph; and Spurzheim, J. GasparAnatomie et phijsiologie du systeme nerveux en general et du cerveau en particulier, avec des observations sur la possibility de reconnoitre plusieurs dispositions intellectuelles et morales de I’homme et des animaux par la configuration de leurs tetes. 4 vols. and Atlas. Paris: Schoell. → A revised edition was published in 1825 in six volumes as Sur les fonctions du cerveau et sur celles de chacune de ses parties.

(1825) 1835 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: Marsh, Capen & Lyon. → A partial translation of Anatomie et physiologie du systeme nerveux en general, et du cerveau en particulier…. (Rev. ed.)


Ackerknecht, Erwin H.; and Vallois, Henry V. (1955) 1956 Franz Joseph Gall: Inventor of Phrenology and His Collection. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Medical School, Department of History of Medicine. → First published in French.

Davies, John D. 1955 Phrenology; Fad and Science: A 19th-century American Crusade. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Fossati, Jean Antoine L. 1858 Gall (Francois Joseph). Volume 19, columns 271-284 in Nouvelle biographie generate. Edited by Jean Hoefer. Paris: Didot.

Hollander, B. 1909 The Unknown Life and Works of Dr. Francis Joseph Gall, the Discoverer of the Anatomy and Physiology of the Brain. London: Gall Society. → Written by an ardent latter-day phrenologist and therefore very biased.

Temkin, Owsei 1947 Gall and the Phrenological Movement. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 21:275–321.

Gall, Franz Joseph

views updated May 18 2018


GALL, FRANZ JOSEPH (1758–1828), inventor of phrenology.

Franz Joseph Gall was born in the Swabian village of Tiefenbronn, in the German grand duchy of Baden, where his father, a wealthy Roman Catholic wool merchant, was mayor. Gall's parents intended him for the church, but in 1777, the same year he married a young Alsatian girl, he began medical studies at Strasbourg. In 1781 he moved to Vienna, where he received his medical degree in 1785. Thereafter, until his death in Paris in August 1828, he carried on a highly successful conventional medical practice.

Gall's first publication, Philosophisch-Medicinische (1791), was largely a diatribe against metaphysics and idealist and romantic speculations. Gall regarded himself as an empiricist revealing "Nature's truths" and took as his particular mission the integration of scientific problems of mind and brain with those of life and society. From the mid-1790s he began collecting and studying human and animal skulls, as well as conducting extensive anatomical dissections of the brain. He developed his ideas in public lectures and demonstrations in Vienna from 1796 until 1801, when the emperor of Austria forbade them on grounds of being conducive to materialism, immorality, and atheism. In 1805, with his assistant, the medical student Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1776–1832), he undertook a lecture tour of Germany, Denmark, The Netherlands, Switzerland, and France, which lasted until October 1807 when he settled in Paris. The tour was a huge success, earning him fame and fortune, but at the same time raising considerable controversy, especially from fellow medical professionals.

Gall's skull doctrine (Schädellehre) or "Organologie" as he preferred to call what others were to denominate craniology and (after 1815) phrenology, was based on six propositions, none of which was strictly original. The first was that humans and animals were born with innate faculties or aptitudes. Although this was a commonsensical observation, it flew in the face of the French idéologues who emphasized the importance of environment and learning over innate endowment. Gall's second proposition was that the brain was the organ of the mind, that is, in opposition to the mind-body dualism posited by René Descartes, that the mind (as brain) was part of the organization of the body as a whole, rather than something separate from it. Third, Gall proposed that the brain was not a homogeneous unity, but an aggregate of cerebral organs ("faculties") with discrete functions. Hitherto, within philosophies of mind, "mental faculties" indicated nonspecific functional parameters; in Gall's system, however, they were physical operational vectors in self-contained compartments of brain-matter. From the point of view of the history of psychology, this assignment of specific mental functions to specific anatomical organs was the most revolutionary aspect of Gall's system. Fourth, he maintained that these cerebral organs were topographically localized, and, fifth, that, other factors being equal, the relative size of any one of them could be taken as an index to its power of manifestation. Finally, Gall proposed that since the skull ossified over the brain during infant development, external craniological means could be used to diagnose the internal state of the mental faculties. Here Gall's theory intersected with contemporary interest in physiognomy, especially as rekindled in the late eighteenth century by the Reverend Johann Caspar Lavater (1741–1801). Significantly, the first full account of Gall's doctrine (which was written by Spurzheim) was not entitled a craniological system or brain organology, but rather, The Physiognomical System of Drs. Gall and Spurzheim (1815). Gall's physiognomy was profoundly different from that delineated by Lavater, however. Not only did it give no scope to immaterial and occult forces, but, crucially, it related external signs of character to internal neurophysiological functions. Although Gall saw himself simply as recasting psychology from a branch of philosophy to one of biology, his physiognomy also fitted with a broader and more fundamental contemporary European project: the perception of the self in terms of psychological interiority.

Since the turn of the twentieth century the mention of phrenology has conjured only the craniological aspect of Gall's doctrine. For most of the nineteenth century, however, Gall's ideas were perceived as pivotal to reconceptualizing psychology, neuroanatomy, and philosophy. Opponents and advocates alike appreciated that his reduction of questions of mind and brain to the single domain of dynamic physiology was a grandiose means to sweep away centuries of metaphysical speculations and reflections. Later pioneers in brain function acknowledged and built upon Gall's researches, while positivist social scientists, such as Auguste Comte, regarded Gall as crucial to a major shift in the conceptualization and analysis of man's place in nature.

See alsoComte, Auguste; Phrenology; Psychology.


Primary Sources

Gall, F. J. Anatomie et physiologie du système nerveux en général, et du Cerveau en particular. 4 vols. Paris, 1810–1819. Includes an atlas of one thousand plates. The first 2 volumes were coauthored by J. G. Spurzheim.

——. Sur les functions du cerveau et sur celles de chacune de ses parties. 6 vols. Paris, 1822–1825. English translation by W. Lewis, Jr. Boston, 1835.

Spurzheim, J. G. The Physiognomical System of Drs. Gall and Spurzheim. London, 1815.

Secondary Sources

Heintel, Helmut. Leben und Werk von Franz Joseph Gall: Eine Chronik. Würzburg, Germany, 1986.

Wyhe, John van. "The Authority of Human Nature: The Schädellehre of Franz Joseph Gall." British Journal for the History of Science 35 (2002): 17–42.

Young, Robert M. "Gall." In Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol. 5, edited by Charles Coulston Gillespie, 250–256. New York, 1972.

Roger Cooter