Phrenology in Nineteenth-Century Britain and America

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Phrenology in Nineteenth-Century Britain and America


Phrenology was an attempt in the early nineteenth century to make judgments about a person's characteristics by measuring the surface of his or her skull. It was enormously popular in Britain during this time, symbolizing the progressive nature of science during the Industrial Revolution. It was popular to a lesser extent in America. Although the theory was flawed, it is regarded as an important step towards modern theories of localization of brain function.


Phrenology is the theory that judgments about a person's character and mental capacities can be made by studying the surface of his or her skull. Franz Joesph Gall (1758-1828), the inventor the theory, believed that the brain was divided into specific areas and that each area was responsible for a human characteristic such as pride or wit. The size of each area was linked to the "power of manifestation" of that trait. Put simply, Gall believed those people with larger "pride areas" of the brain, for example, were more proud. He reasoned that it was possible to judge the size of an area, and hence to make judgments about a person's character, by examining the surface of the skull directly above that area.

Phrenology thus provided a map of the human skull that related different areas to different human characteristics. The map was often illustrated by literally drawing the divisions onto a model of a head and naming the different areas. Known as phrenological heads, these can still be seen in junk shops today.

The medical theory of the eighteenth century seems, at first glance, to be very different from Gall's ideas at the beginning of the nineteenth. Medical thought in the eighteenth century still owed much to the second-century physician and philosopher Galen of Pergamon (A.D. 138-201) and the even earlier writings of Hippocrates (c. 460-377 B.C.). In the Galenic theory the liquid components of the body—the humors—were of primary importance. The solid organs merely processed the humors.

However, changes in the way the body was being understood preceded the popularization of phrenology. Throughout the eighteenth century there was a shift in emphasis away from the humors towards the solid organs of the body. In neurophysiology this change was linked to theories of the seventeenth-century French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes identified the pineal gland in the brain as being the point at which the immaterial soul acted upon the human body. Galen's theory included a liquid—the "vital spirit"—that differentiated humans from animals, a notion that Descartes rejected.

Eighteenth-century medicine and philosophy were also concerned with the search for the "sensorium commune," the area within the brain "where all forms of sensation were correlated." Although not everyone perceived the sensorium commune as interacting with the soul, it had a similar status to the Cartesian vision of the pineal gland. Together, these and other theories were moving medical beliefs about human cognition and emotion away from the humors and towards a brain-centered theory.

These theories did not necessarily conflict with the idea of "soul" or "will." Such ideas permeated medical thought at the time and allowed medicine to investigate the human body without challenging the status of religion. To advocate a materialist view of the human mind, where all thought and actions have their causes in the physical working of the brain, would have been a direct attack on the church.

At the same time that physiologists were asserting the importance of the brain, the first attempts were being made to understand human behavior in what would now be described as psychological terms. The eighteenth century was a period of intense interest in the relationship between brain and behavior. Gall's theory was unique in terms of its vision and its subsequent success, but Gall was not alone in attempting to explain human behavior in terms of the human brain.

Likewise, although phrenology was the first theory to link areas of the brain to specific human traits, the idea that judgments about character could be made by studying the human body—known as physiognomy—was part of the folk culture of the time. Many biographers of Gall have noted that while still at school he observed that the more able of his classmates tended to have large and protruding eyes. Although this is clearly in keeping with the theories he went on to develop, it would also have made sense within the "common sense" thinking of the eighteenth century.

Phrenology differed from other psyognomic theories in many ways, but to understand why it was so much more successful that its rivals, it is necessary to understand the social climate of early nineteenth-century Europe.

Throughout Europe at this time the traditional centers of power, the aristocracy and the church, were coming under attack. The Enlightenment, an intellectual movement of the previous century, had promoted the use of the scientific method and reason and encouraged the questioning of traditional beliefs about religion.

The violent events of the French Revolution (1789-1799) were still fresh in the minds of the European aristocracy. In Britain, the only European country in which phrenology was widely popularized, a revolution of a different kind was occurring. The introduction of industrial methods of production was bringing about changes in the way society was structured. The Industrial Revolution was increasing the numbers of the skilled professional middle class, such as medical professionals and factory managers, and the unskilled urban workers.

Living conditions for the urban working classes were bad, with low wages, long hours of often hard labor and poor housing and health. The concerns of the new middle classes were considerably different. They were anxious to establish their place in the new social hierarchy, to distance themselves from the workers in the new factories without challenging the status of the aristocracy. It was within this climate that Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1776-1832), the major populariser of phrenology within Britain, first came to London in 1814.


The influence of phrenology on all levels of British society during the nineteenth century was significant. It was by far the most well-known scientific theory of the century among the middle and working classes. The most popular account of phrenology sold almost twice as many copies as Charles Darwin's seminal book about natural selection, On the Origin of Species.

Spurzheim took phrenology to America, where it also enjoyed widespread success. In both countries it helped shape ideas about brain and behavior, education and health.

It also played an important role in the development of modern theories of localization of brain function.

One of the reasons phrenology was successful in Britain was that it meant different things to different groups. Spurzheim had changed the names of the different phrenological areas that Gall had defined, increasing their number and making the characteristics sound more positive. Although Gall and Spurzheim claimed that the phrenological areas were the result of empirical studies, the fact that areas could be redefined shows the flexibility of the theory.

Promoted via the literary and philosophical societies of middle-class Britain, phrenology boomed between 1820 and 1830. For the new middle classes, phrenology embodied the progressive nature of science in general. Phrenological journals, modeled on established scientific journals, were published, and the array of skulls, models, and charts that accompanied phrenological lectures helped to add to its aura of objectivity and rationality.

Science was seen as symbolic of a new society based on reason rather than religion and privilege. That is not to say the middle classes wished for a revolution. Members of the literary and philosophical societies of the time benefited from an association with science that raised them above the working classes, while the ban on discussion of politics and religion at these societies ensured that they did not threaten the existing social order.

For the laboring classes phrenology offered the chance of self-improvement. Phrenology declared human differences to be innate, but it also offered the chance to change one's character through education. For the working classes this offered the potential of social advancement, while for the middle classes it gave a "natural" explanation for the difference between the two classes.

Phrenology and phrenologists played an important role in promoting an education for the working classes that embodied this idea of natural differences. The Mechanics Institutes, first established during the 1820s, were a response to middle-class fear of growing unrest among the urban workers. Designed as places of education for the working classes, these emphasized practical skills suitable for the worker's role in society. Phrenology was also taught at these institutes.

The use of phrenology to justify the existing social order was understandably not accepted by the more radical members of the working classes. Some viewed phrenology as materialistic—and hence denying the existence of God—and used it to attack the conventional religious views of the middle and upper classes. But it was never used as effectively by these radicals as it was by the middle classes. This was in part because its message of individual self-improvement contradicted the ideals of the socialist movement, the major response of the working classes to the political economy of the time.

The status of phrenology amongst the middle classes declined from 1830 onwards. The values that they had used phrenology to promote were now becoming dominant. At the same time some middle-class phrenologists were extolling a more radical materialistic interpretation of the theory. This, combined with the proliferation of street vendors offering phrenological examinations, hastened its demise among the middle classes. Phrenology was attacked on grounds of scientific inaccuracy before and after its heyday, but it cannot be said that any new science contributed to its demise.

Among the working classes phrenology had become enormously popular, gaining a status similar to that enjoyed by horoscopes today. It influence was to remain strong until the beginning of the twentieth century.

Phrenology never had such a wide influence in America as it did in Britain. Following a lecture tour by Spurzheim's in 1832, phrenological societies were set up in Boston and Philadelphia. Spurzheim died during the Boston leg of his tour and his subsequent martyrdom probably helped promote these and other phrenological societies. Unlike in Britain, the success of phrenology in America was not due to these societies (many of which quickly ceased to exist) but to traveling "salesmen" who offered phrenological examinations and lectures for a small fee. Most famous of these were the Fowler brothers. After a successful tour they set up business in New York, a business that lasted until the beginning of the twentieth century. The younger of the brothers visited England in 1860 and briefly revived the then-flagging popularization of phrenology in that country.

The social influence of phrenology differs markedly between Britain and America, but the impact of phrenology was felt beyond these societies. In terms of the way we view human character and the human mind, phrenology had an enormous impact. Although the British practitioners of phrenology were keen to stress that it was not a materialist theory, it was often perceived as such. Gall's lectures in Vienna were banned by the Austrian Emperor because of this. Phrenology's limited success in other European countries was in part due to its materialist connotations.

Phrenology also influenced scientific views of the human mind. Gall was not the first person to link behavior with physiology, but he was the first to localize function to specific areas of the human brain and to back this up with empirical evidence (albeit collected in an unscientific manner). He also differed from other phsyiognomists in believing that many different aspects of what makes us human—mental abilities, emotions, and personality—could be understood by studying the brain.

Gall's theory that these functions could be identified with different areas of the brain—known as localization of function—was not accepted during his lifetime. While phrenology enjoyed enormous popular support in Britain, the scientific ideas behind the theory were rejected by the academic community in Paris, where Gall lived for the time. But despite this rejection, phrenology influenced physiologists such as Jean Baptiste Bouillard (1796-1881) and Paul Broca (1824-1880), who went on to establish the theory of localization of function in the second half of the nineteenth century. Modern neuroscience, using new brain imaging techniques, has subsequently shown that different areas of the brain are indeed specialized for specific tasks such as vision and motor control.


Further Reading


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


Barker, Fred G. "Phineas among the Phrenologists: The American Crowbar Case and the Nineteenth-century Theories of Cerebral Localization." Journal of Neurosurgery 82 (April): 672-682.

Greenblatt, Samuel H. "Phrenology in the Science and Culture of the Nineteenth Century." Neurosurgery 37 (October 1995): 790-805.

Hodson, Derek and Bob Prophet. "A Bumpy Start to Science Education." New Scientist 111 (14 August 1986): 25-28.


The History of Phrenology on the Web: