A nineteenth-century proto-science claiming that character
and personality could be ascertained by the shape and size of
various areas or bumps on the skull, resulting from development
of the brain centers. It derives from the traditional belief
that character traits are reflected in physical appearance, and
was associated with physiognomy, the study of outward aspects
of the individual.
Phrenology was first systematically developed by Franz Joseph
Gall (17581828) at the end of the eighteenth century. He
made observations on hundreds of heads and skulls, and in
1796 lectured in Vienna on the anatomy of the brain and the
elements of phrenology. His pupil J. K. Spurzheim continued
his work in England and America, where phrenology vied with
mesmerism and spiritualist phenomena as a popular subject of
study during the nineteenth century. Initially, Gall and
Spurzheim encountered opposition from some church leaders
because their system appeared to imply that personality characteristics
were inborn instead of being subject to modification
by leading a good life.
Gall was an accredited physician with a detailed knowledge
of the brain and nervous system, and he proposed phrenology
to his colleagues for their serious scientific consideration. Phrenology
became the province of many original thinkers of the
day. However, phrenology also was popularized and practiced
by non-medical individuals and even fairground charlatans.
Essentially, phrenology defined more than thirty areas of
the skull related to such instincts as amativeness, philogeniture,
habitativeness, affection, combativeness, destructiveness, alimentiveness,
secretiveness, acquisitiveness, and constructiveness,
and to such moral faculties as self-esteem, approbativeness,
circumspection, benevolence, veneration, firmness,
conscientiousness, hope, admiration, idealism, cheerfulness,
The size and development of these areas implied strong or
weak aspects of these instincts and faculties. The areas were
measured by calipers and marked off on a chart, so that a complete
character reading could be made.
Early exponents of animal magnetism (a precursor of hypnotism,
but allied with psychic faculties) developed a new approach
named phreno-magnetism or phrenomesmerism.
Operators claimed that when any phrenological
area of the subject was touched during a trance, the subject
acted out the particular faculty associated with that area. Thus,
when the operator touched the bump of combativeness, the
entranced subject would exhibit belligerent behavior.
Although now discarded as a failed scientific option, phrenology
flourished side by side with mesmerism and Spiritualism
during the nineteenth century. Noted scientists were sympathetic,
and additional supporters could be found among the
literary elite such as Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe.
Interest in phrenology continued in America well into the
twentieth century, and the British Phrenological Society,
founded in 1886 by Lorenzo J. Fowler, was still in existence in
the 1960s, though it had long ceased to affect the culture that
Chambers, Howard V. Phrenology. Sherbourne, 1968.
Davies, John D. Phrenology, Fad and Science A Nineteenth Century
American Crusade. Archon, 1955. Reprint, Shoe String,
De Giustino, David. Conquest of Mind Phrenology and Victorian
Social Thought. London Croom Helm; Totowa, N.J. Rowman
& Littlefield, 1975.
Gall, Franz J. On the Functions of the Brain and of Each of Its
Parts with Observations on the Possibility of Determining the Instincts,
Propensities and Talents, or the Moral and Intellectual Dispositions
of Men and Animals, by the Configuration of the Brain and
Head. 6 vols. Boston, 1835.
Stern, Madeleine B. Heads and Headlines The Phrenological
Fowlers. Norman, Okla. University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.
Wells, Samuel R. How to Read Character A New Illustrated
Handbook of Phrenology and Physiognomy. New York Samuel R.
Wells, 1871. Reprint, Rutland, Conn. C. E. Tuttle, 1971.