Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Primer on Phrenology in the Civil War - Part I - Origins

Last month, at the Seventeenth Annual Conference on Civil War Medicine sponsored by the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, I had the great privilege and pleasure of delivering a lecture entitled, "It's All in Your Head: Phrenology and the American Civil War."

One of the best sources to learn about phrenology and the Civil War is the wartime pages of the American Phrenological Journal. Indeed, phrenology enjoyed its greatest popularity during the Civil War era, and during the war, the Journal published phrenological profiles of the senior members of the Union officer corps as well as leading politicians, commenting on how they manifested (or didn’t) the more than two dozen “organs” of the brain, such as courage, pride, vanity, perseverance, guile, etc.

I have many wartime issues of the Journal in my own collection, and over the next few weeks will be sharing some of these phrenological "readings" here on the blog. In advance of that, though, I thought a quick primer on 19th-century-phrenology would be helpful:

Definitions of Phrenology

Proper = A theory stating that the personality traits of a person can be derived from the shape of the skull; from φρήν, phrēn, "mind“and λόγος, logos, "knowledge."

Humorous = "The science of picking the pocket through the scalp. It consists in locating and exploiting the organ that one is a dupe with." - The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce

Basic Principles of Phrenology

1) The brain is the organ of the mind (just as the ear is the organ of hearing)
2) The mind is not homogenous or a single unit, bur rather, is made up of independent and identifiable “faculties” – i.e. – individual capacities or character traits
3) These faculties lie at certain sites – or organs – of the brain – e.g., the organ for the faculty of “Benevolence” is located in the high frontal area of the brain
4) The degree of development of these organs affects the size and shape of corresponding areas of the skull

Therefore, someone who knows how to “read” the cranium according to these tenets has an instant and intimate knowledge of the person they are examining. The most exciting part of phrenology, though, was that one could “exercise” certain organs to increase or decrease a particular faculty, thereby perfecting oneself – and society.


Phrenology was the creation of Franz Joseph Gall, a prominent physician and physiologist in Vienna, Austria. In his student days, he began to suspect that correlations existed between certain features of people’s heads and their personalities and abilities.

From his observation, Gall gradually developed the science of phrenology and the basic principles described above. In 1802, the Austrian government condemned Gall’s ideas as atheistic, materialistic, and morally subversive, and forbade him from continuing with his lectures in the country. Thus effectively exiled, Gall embarked on a European lecture tour and gained an international reputation, eventually settling in Paris.

He brought with him a student and fellow lecturer: Johann Gaspar Spurzheim. Gall and Spurzheim began to go in different directions with their thoughts on phrenology. Gall’s view of mankind was rather aristocratic and pessimistic and he saw phrenology as a useful tool of the powerful elite who could learn to use phrenology as a tool to rule others more effectively.

Spurzheim, on the other hand, was more philosophical and saw phrenology as a social philosophy that served as a foundation to empower the entire human race – to perfect itself and its institutions. As such, Spurzheim was a new breed: more than a lecturer – indeed, a missionary, crusader, and apostle.

Spurzheim began his work by going to Scotland and England where he received a polite but not especially enthusiastic reception. However –a young lawyer – George Comb – became a dedicated convert and established a society. He was very dedicated and carried the message of phrenology throughout Europe and America. Indeed, when Spurzheim dies in 1832, Comb took his place as the world’s most prominent theoretical proponent of phrenology. By the late 1820s, many phrenological societies had been formed in various parts of Great Britain and they published widely and prolifically, resulting in a more positive reputation for phrenology in Britain, if not wholeheartedly popular.

One of the problems was that the science – such as it was – remained too theoretical to garner much ground or appeal, and the societies were small and served little function except as upper-class debating societies which matched Gall’s model more than that of Spurzheim. The question then, was how to awaken a more general interest and application to achieve a more widespread and popular base.

The answer to that questions comes soon in Part II - Americanizing Phrenology!


B. Forbush said...

The fact that Comb's prolific promotion of phrenology did have a positive effect, even if not entirely popular, proves the power of promotion, or advertising.

Jim Schmidt said...

Brad, Thanks for leaving a comment, mon frere! I guess I'd agree that Combs used the power of his press - on behalf of his society - to get the word out. When it comes to phrenology, though, there wasn't much were either a rue believer, or you weren't. Stay tuned for Part II! Jim