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Facing a Bumpy History

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

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The mantle fell, in large part, to a ministry student named Orson Fowler, who suddenly found his true calling in Spurzheim's theory and polemical practice. Fowler began to lecture on the topic to his classmates at Amherst College in Massachusetts, and to offer "readings" for 2 cents apiece. In one friend, the future Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, Fowler reported finding evidence of a "strong social brain" with "very large Benevolence."

Orson's enthusiasm infected his younger brother, Lorenzo, along with the rest of the family. The two Fowler brothers — frustrated evangelists both — began touring the country, carrying "the truth of phrenology" from town to town, lecturing and offering readings, analyzing the character and pro-pensities of utter strangers from the bumps and valleys on their skulls. (In one of his early sessions, Lorenzo Fowler studied the head of a shy 15-year-old named Clara Barton. Years later, in her memoirs, the founder of the American Red Cross recalled Fowler's comments: "She will never assert herself for herself — she will suffer wrong first — but for others she will be fearless.")

America quickly became cranium-conscious. Employers advertised for workers with particular phrenological profiles — even asking for a reading by the Fowlers as a reference. Women began changing their hairstyles to show off their more flattering phrenological features. Everyone, from small-town folk to the rich and famous, sat for readings, including such notables as Horace Greeley and Brigham Young. (Predictably, P.T. Barnum scored high in all traits but "Cautiousness.")

By the 1840s, the Fowlers' New York office, known as the Phrenological Cabinet, had become one of the most visited attractions in town, serving as a bizarre museum that included phrenological portraits of hundreds of famous people's heads. (At least one of them was specially commissioned, post-mortem. After the 1836 death of Aaron Burr, the Fowlers ordered a cast of the deceased's head, and found, upon examination, that Burr's organs of "Secretiveness" and "Destructiveness" were- — not surprisingly — far larger than those of the average person.)

As publishers, the Fowlers churned out the American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany (which remained in print until 1911), along with countless volumes on phrenology and its applications to health and happiness, including guides to phrenological parenting and the proper choice of a mate. They also printed the first volume by a young writer named Walt Whitman.

When Emerson, after reading a manuscript of Leaves of Grass, famously wrote to its author, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career," the letter was addressed in care of the Fowlers. In the book itself, the Fowlers' influence is clear: "Who are you indeed who would talk or sing of America?" Whitman wrote. "Have you . . . learn'd the . . . phrenology . . . of the land?" So pleased was Whitman with his own phrenological reading ("large hope and comparison . . . and causality") that he would quote it time and time again in his writings.

Edgar Allan Poe also regularly wove phrenological concepts into his work, even employing cranial descriptions in an 1850 series of sketches of New York literary figures. (Of William Cullen Bryant, he wrote, the "forehead is broad, with prominent organs of Ideality.") Charlotte Brontë's work is also laced with phrenological analyses. Herman Melville's Moby Dick even offers a lengthy (albeit mocking) phrenological description of the great whale.

Because phrenological theory espoused the idea of perfectibility, social reformers quickly latched onto it. Horace Mann regarded phrenology as the greatest discovery of the age. The Fowlers themselves became vocal advocates of reform and self-improvement, sometimes through advice on the proper phrenological choice of a career, but also with regard to education, temperance, even prison reform.

Of course, there were always skeptics--not least of them, Mark Twain, who recounted with horror that Fowler had found on his skull "a cavity" where humor ought to be. John Quincy Adams is said to have wondered how two phrenologists could look each other in the eye without laughing. But phrenology sailed on, pretty much unscathed, and until the turn of the century, continued to have an enormous impact on the public's ideas about the mind.

So pervasive was it that as late as 1888, the editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, wanting to debunk it in the name of reason (not to mention common sense), felt compelled to publish a detailed, seven-page refutation of it.

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