Phrenology

Malcolm MacCallum, Curator at the Anatomical Museum, University of Edinburgh, writes about the Phrenology collection, a more unusual subject area that forms part of the Anatomical Museums collection. 

Phrenologists studied the elevations and depressions of the skull, believing that these indicated a person’s character and mental capacity. Although particularly popular in the 19th century, today phrenology is very much a discredited ‘science’.

Franz Joseph Gall
Franz Joseph Gall

The founder of Phrenology was Franz Joseph Gall (1758 – 1828). During his medical training at Strasbourg, Gall noticed that his smartest classmates had bulging eyes, to which he attributed enhanced cerebral function. This observation formed the basis for his phrenological theory. After completing his medical studies, Gall continued to make the link between brain function and physical features. He visited asylums, courts, prisons, and castles to find people with specific personality traits, linking them to pronounced physical characteristics. One of Gall’s former students, Johann Gasper Spurzheim (1776-1832) became his secretary and assistant. They lectured around Europe believing that they had found the key to understanding the mind. They separated in 1813 as Spurzheim wanted to extend the concept of phrenology to philosophy, religion and social reform.

phrenology instruments
Phrenological Instuments

During the course of the early 19th century, many phrenological societies were being established to promote the subject, and thanks to the efforts of George Combe (1788-1858), Edinburgh became one of the European centres for phrenological study. The collection that you can now see in the Anatomical Museum originally belonged to the Edinburgh Phrenological Society (founded by Combe in 1820) and was displayed in their museum on Chambers Street (now the Crown Office building). In 1886, as the popularity of Phrenology declined, the collection was transferred in its entirety to its current home at the Department of Anatomy.

 

19th Century Phrenology Cabinet
19th Century Phrenology Cabinet

As a museum we are fortunate that phrenology has left us with a rich material legacy. Phrenological societies and their members would collect life and death masks, skulls and skull casts from individuals from across society in order to display material that confirmed their theory. As a result we have about 350 death masks in the collection, 95% of which are male. If you visit the Anatomical Museum you will see approximately 40 death masks on display, these feature notable figures from the worlds of science (Isaac Newton) exploration (John Ross) poetry (Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth), literature (Samuel Johnson, Walter Scott), politics (Oliver Cromwell), royalty (George III and George IV) music (Franz Liszt) art (David Wilkie, James Audubon). Other parts of this collection are on display at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and on loan to the National Galleries of Scotland.

 

A selection of Death Masks
A selection of Death Masks

However the phrenology collection consists of much more than death masks. Also on display at the museum, we have skulls and skull casts, brain casts, copies of classical busts, skull measuring instruments, a variety of artwork and my personal favourite object: an intriguing set of plaster miniature heads, set in a wooden travelling case, that were used to demonstrate the principles of phrenology at lectures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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