Facing a Bumpy History | History | Smithsonian

Facing a Bumpy History

The much-maligned theory of phrenology gets a tip of the hat from modern neuroscience

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In London in 1873, Mark Twain saw an advertisement for the services of a fellow American who had hung out a shingle on Fleet Street. At once inspired and skeptical, Twain made his way to the offices of Lorenzo N. Fowler, "practical phrenologist."

"I found Fowler on duty," Twain wrote, "amidst the impressive symbols of his trade. On brackets, on tables . . . all about the room, stood marble-white busts, hairless, every inch of the skull occupied by a shallow bump, and every bump labeled with its imposing name, in black letters."

During the 19th century, thousands of busts like those Twain described were manufactured and sold by Fowler and others. One of them — its surfaces inked with lines showing the location of such traits as "Conjugality" and "Combativeness" — is on display at the American History Museum's "Science in American Life" exhibit, surrounded by other measures of human intellect and personality.

According to the "science" of phrenology, an individual's character and abilities could be deduced from the size and shape of various bumps on the head. By the time Twain visited Fowler, phrenology had developed an enormous following, especially in America. Characteristics such as verbal memory, "Amativeness" and "Secretiveness" were supposed to be controlled by corresponding areas, or "organs," of the brain. The more developed the trait, the larger the organ, and the larger a protrusion it formed in the skull.

Phrenologists also believed that such traits — and their respective organs — could be modified through the practice of restraint or by the conscious "exercise" of a positive quality.

In the 20th century, phrenological busts have become comic conversation pieces, their images often used to patronize the past. Phrenology's failings are indeed obvious, but in our modern dismissal of it, its tremendous impact on 19th century society can easily be forgotten. And despite its shaky scientific foundations, phrenology is enjoying a measure of respect from those who study the brain today.

Like another theory of mind that later permeated American culture, phrenology was the brainchild of a Viennese physician fascinated by the human psyche. Even as a schoolboy in the late 1700s, Franz Joseph Gall noticed that classmates who could memorize long passages with ease all seemed to have prominent eyes and large foreheads. From this he inferred that an organ of verbal memory must lie behind the eyes. He speculated that if one ability was "indicated by an external feature," others might be also.

His expanded theory brought Gall renown, but also the disapproval of church authorities, who considered such ideas heretical. In 1802, the state prohibited him from promoting his theory in Austria. Not surprisingly, this only increased public interest. Gall began lecturing throughout Europe and in 1805, with his protégé and former student, Johann Kaspar Spurzheim, he left Austria for good.

In the early years of the 19th century, Gall's ideas spread across Europe. But it was in America, a country starved for a "scientific" insight into the human mind (and one that offered the hope of individual perfectibility — read "self-help"), that phrenology would find its most devoted and enduring audience. And it was Spurzheim, having further expanded Gall's theory and adopted the name "phrenology," who would bring it to our shores.

Spurzheim arrived in 1832 for a whirlwind lecture tour — one that literally killed him after just six months. But in that short time, he converted thousands, lecturing at Harvard and Yale, and across the American heartland. Ralph Waldo Emerson described him as one of the world's greatest minds. After Spurzheim's death, John James Audubon sketched his remains for posterity; Harvard president Josiah Quincy handled his funeral arrangements. "The prophet is gone," the American Journal of Medical Sciences declared, "but his mantle is upon us."

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