Saturday, November 08, 2008

It’s all in your head: Phrenology and the Victorians

Phrenology, the pseudo-science based on the belief that by examining the shape of a subject’s head, one can determine various traits of character and intelligence was based on the work of the Viennese physician Franz Josef Gall. Popularized in England by Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, it reached its zenith in the latter years of the eighteenth and the early years of the nineteenth century before falling out of fashion.

Phrenology returned as a popular “science” in the middle and later years of the Victorian Era. Its popularity was so great that it even became the subject of lectures and classes amongst the working classes at the Windsor and Eton Mechanics’ Institution in the latter years of the 1830s.

From the middle years of the century forward, it gained in popularity despite an increasing debunking of it by the medical profession. Many phrenologists dabbled in a wide range of “alternative” therapies. When Samuel Adcock was murdered near Leicester, towards the end of June 1854, one of the suspects, Frederick Ashton, who claimed to be from New York, had

been lecturing on phrenology at Leicester for about six months, and he also professes to cure all sorts of diseases by means of flannel bands charged with electricity.
There were those, of course, who took it seriously or at least felt that it might possibly be a fruitful line of medical inquiry. Rev. Baden-Powell, father to the founder of the scouting movement, and Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford, deplored the violence of the debates surrounding phrenology. He argued that this had “divested of its true philosophic character what ought to be simply a branch of inductive inquiry,” and went on to argue in From the Order of Nature Considered in Reference to the Claims of Revelation published in 1859, that

Calmly viewed, it exhibits only a set of the most unexpected relations, at first collected and examined in the most purely empirical manner, in complete absence of any theory; out of which, by slow degrees, a system has been elicited, of which it can only be said, that at present it exhibits just that sort of rough, general coherency which, in spite of numberless objections in detail, gives an assurance of something too deeply seated in truth to be put down as mere random coincidence or fanciful delusion.
Even so, there were many who felt that phrenology had been adequately tested and had failed. Thirty years earlier, in March of 1829, writing in the Edinburgh Review, Lord Macaulay described Phrenology as “laughable.” And by 1855, John Hilton, the foremost anatomist of his day, was combating the doctrines of this pseudo-science, “adducing many anatomical objections to prove the fallacies on which it is based.” Nonetheless, the medical profession was certainly not in full agreement as to the usefulness or even the theoretical structure of Phrenology. And while some treated it with disdain, it was not to fall fully into disrepute until well into the twentieth century.

Phrenology was often seen as a joke by Victorians. Light theatrical pieces tended to use it and practitioners were seen as either charlatans or dupes. In 1841, at the Strand a new piece, The Bump of Benevolence, appeared and while the review suggests it had little to do with phrenology, the title is clearly an allusion to it. In 1848, the Lyceum put on Astounding Phenomena, in which one of the main characters is a pseudo-professor of mesmerism and phrenology. In 1867, Tide and Time, A Tale of the Thames, offered viewers at the Surrey Theatre a trial in which an itinerant Professor of Phrenology saves the day (at least temporarily) for our heroine albeit not through any phrenological methods. Phrenology often played a peripheral role in theatrical pieces, and tended to be associated with itinerant “professors,” an association which surely carried with it a certain stigma.

Even as late as 1899, Phrenology could still be seen as a theatre piece. In the musical comedy, Florodora, for example, a song entitled “Phrenology” was described by The Times as “capital”.

Although it is easy to dismiss Phrenology, it was, of course, taken quite seriously by many. In the Tichborne trial, for example, Mr David Wilson, who told the court that he was a physician with a diploma from the Edinburgh College of Surgeons, testified that

he was chiefly engaged in examining the defendant’s brain—that is, he explained,his phrenological development. He believed, he said, firmly in phrenology.
Scientists, however, remained divided on the question of phrenology and it continued to be a subject of some interest. According to The Times of 24 February 1887, at a meeting of the Anthropological Institute (Francis Galton in the Chair) a paper was presented by Professor David Ferrier on the subject of the functional topography of the brain.

He expressed his belief that in the present state of our knowledge the data of a scientific phrenology were still very deficient. Here was reason to believe, however, that if the subject were taken up from different points of view by anatomists, physiologists, psychologists and anthropologists, great progress might be made.
Considering Ferrier’s brilliant career in neurology and neurosurgery, it is difficult to see such a statement as little more than damning of phrenology with faint praise on the one hand or a willingness to accept the name but not the discipline. In fact, he had made his position quite clear three years earlier when, in speaking to the British Association meeting at Bradford in September of 1873, he commented, that

The great work now to be done was to further ascertain the exact scientific localization of the different faculties by examining scientifically the convolution of the brain a work which Gall had begun, but which unfortunately he left off for the more unsatisfactory science of phrenology.
In the popular arena there seems to have been no shortness of practitioners and few if any requirements for one to put up one’s shingle. George Burgess, for example, on his 70th birthday on 12 June 1899 wrote in his diary that

since January 1861 I have been practising Phrenology in the Arcades, Bristol. But my deafness since 1871 has greatly interfered with my pleasure, and my profits, in my work.
Burgess’ formal education was limited for, as he notes, he “finally left off schooling about age 14, a poor scholar”. Although he trained as a stone-cutter and was apprenticed to a marble works in the United States, he enjoyed Phrenology, describing it as “fairly profitable, and … a real good and useful profession.” It is possible that while in the United States Burgess was influenced by the phrenologists, Orson Squire Fowler and his brother, Lorenzo.

Lorenzo Fowler was to later open offices in London where he performed a phrenological examination of Mark Twain. Some time in 1872 or ’73, the ever sceptical Twain visited Fowler’s establishment using a pseudonym. He found Fowler indifferent and the reading so balanced in terms of his strengths and weaknesses as to amount to nothing in the end. One surprise, however, was to be told that he had a cavity where a bump should have been and this was an indication that he lacked a sense of humour!

By the early 1900s, much of the theory of Phrenology had been replaced by the nascent work of psychotherapists like Sigmund Freud whose work was beginning to impact on theories of the mind as well as by the increasing study of the brain itself.

To download George Combe, A System of Phrenology (1837), all 664 pages, click here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm doing some research regarding phrenology in Victorian England, and I'm particularly interested in your mention of the phrenologist who was a murder suspect, as this event occured quite near to my home in Leicester. I've discovered some further details of the murder but haven't yet located the primary souce which you quoted. Would you mind telling me where you found it? You can reach me at Thank you.