Phrenology’s Rise and Fall
How analyzing the shape and contours of skulls became a widespread fad in the 19th century.
Phrenology was considered a science in the 19th century, and it became astonishingly popular in Britain and America. Its basic premise held that different parts of the human brain influence emotions, intellect, and behavior. It was believed that studying the shape and contours of someone’s skull could provide a reliable analysis of their character.
At the peak of its popularity, in the mid-1800s, phrenology attracted prominent fans and proponents. Ordinary people flocked to have their skulls analyzed. Many took seriously the idea that ridges and bumps on the skull could indicate if someone was romantically inclined or not, or that a skull shape could indicate someone was a criminal or destined to be enslaved.
Phrenology is now considered a pseudoscience. Perhaps it can be termed a protoscience, as some of its principles, especially the idea that various parts of the brain had different functions, helped steer science to a modern understanding of the brain.
The principles of phrenology were first developed by the German physiologist Franz Joseph Gall in the 1790s. His student J.K. Spurzheim continued to popularize the new field of study, helping it spread to England and America. Gall and Spurzheim were trained physicians, but their innovative ideas would ultimately be taken up by non-medical people.
Gall’s original version of phrenology postulated 27 different regions of the brain that he believed influenced particular impulses or emotion. Examples were “mechanical skill” and “impulse to propagate.” Gall came up with his ideas based on observations of patients in hospitals as well as inmates in asylums and prisons.
From 1805 to 1807 Gall conducted a successful lecture tour in Europe, which helped convince people of his theories. In 1807 he settled in Paris. His colleague Spurzheim toured Britain in 1813, and his lectures began to make phrenology a popular fascination in the English speaking world.
Phrenological societies were founded at English and Scottish universities, and the ideas evolved beyond the teachings of Gall and Spurzheim. By the 1830s phrenology had traveled to America, where it found enthusiastic followers. Orson Fowler, an advocate for healthy living and vegetarianism, vigorously embraced phrenology, making it a central part of his eccentric social reform agenda.
Fowler, along with his brother Lorenzo, toured to speak at Lyceums to promote the principles of phrenology. Orson Fowler also published a journal about phrenology along with a number of books. Phrenology as marketed in America departed from Gall’s original scientific exploration. It was a way to understand human nature as well as part of a self-improvement regimen.
The Fowlers’ phrenology storefront in New York City became popular with a curious public. Besides books, the shop marketed “phrenology busts,” ceramic statues of human heads with various regions, such as mirthfulness, acquisitiveness, and secretiveness, denoted on them.
Perhaps the most noteworthy 19th century American closely associated with phrenology was Walt Whitman. While working as a journalist in New York City he became familiar with the Phrenological Depot operated by the Fowler Brothers on Nassau Street in lower Manhattan. In 1849 he had his skull analyzed by Lorenzo Fowler and received a written analysis of his “faculties.”
Whitman referred to this analysis several times, and seemed especially proud that phrenology had assessed him as being strong in “animal will.” In 1855 the self-published first edition of Leaves of Grass was advertised for sale at the Fowlers’ store. The following year Orson Fowler published the second edition of Whitman’s book.
Newspaper editor Horace Greeley had become an early convert to phrenology in the 1830s. He published the lectures of Scottish phrenology advocate George Coomb in a newspaper he edited in New York in 1833. Greeley later lectured on the subject himself.
Ralph Waldo Emerson seemed to be fascinated by phrenology but also skeptical of it. He referred to it in his 1844 essay “Experience” to scoff at it. He would express an ambivalence toward it in other writings. Yet in the early 1850s he happened to cross paths with the Fowlers when they helped promote some of his lectures in New York City.
A Fowler publication, the Phrenological Journal, published a lengthy analysis of Emerson in its March 1854 edition. Among other things, the article noted, “Combativeness seems large and Destructiveness full, which corresponds with his known energy in pushing forth his peculiar views.”
Emerson did not actually have his skull manipulated by an experienced phrenologist. It is likely someone in the Fowler organization, perhaps Lorenzo Fowler, had attended a lecture and studied Emerson’s skull from a close distance. Though the leading phrenologists were quite interested in Emerson, he remained skeptical.
After migrating to England and America, phrenology became more of a popular entertainment than anything resembling serious scientific research. The theories of Gall and Spurzheim were eclipsed by casually trained phrenologists. Practitioners became common. Cities commonly had phrenologists operating in storefronts. Traveling phrenologists roamed rural America in the style of carnival performers.
Even established promoters such as the Fowlers had always marketed phrenology as more of a practical tool for personal development than a serious scientific endeavor. The public tended to view it as a helpful guide to improving one’s personality. Phrenologists might prescribe physical activities believed to stimulate specific areas of the brain or dispense other advice now seen as quackery.
By the middle of the 19th century phrenology was being discredited by the scientific community. And the wider public seemed to mostly lose interest. In some instances, phrenology essentially faded away by merging with other popular fascinations such as spiritualism.
While the widespread phrenology fad of the mid-1800s may appear bizarre today, the original ideas espoused by Franz Joseph Gall had been taken seriously by anatomists. Later scientists such as Pierre Paul Broca developed a more accurate concept of brain localization. Yet Gall can be given some credit for having proposed his early theory of how different parts of the brain performed distinct functions.
The popularized version of phrenology that spread in America can’t be viewed entirely as harmless entertainment. It was often taken too seriously. For example, when the captives from the ship Amistad were being held in jail in New Haven, Connecticut in 1839, various phrenologists traveled to examine them. Their accounts, which were contradictory and, of course, of dubious reliability, were used to shape public opinion.
It was not uncommon for phrenologists to advocate overtly racist ideas, and to use phrenological concepts to defend the institution of slavery. And it has been argued that darker aspects of phrenology influenced the later theory of eugenics.
Phrenology began as serious scientific inquiry, became a fascination for the curious, and reached widespread popularity as something of a self-improvement movement. While accepted as legitimate science for a time, it was discredited as unreliable. And, in some hands it was used to advance beliefs which can only be termed racist.