Here, James Poskett explores the history of phrenology and explains how in the Victorian period it was used to educate the 'weak-minded' and rehabilitate criminals...


Some time in the mid-19th century, the popular musical Florodora declared: “You must choose your wife with phrenological care. For the realm beneath her bonnet has your future mapped upon it.”

Today, the idea of young men basing their choice of future wife on what lies “beneath her bonnet” – ie the dimensions of her head – may seem more than a little ridiculous. Yet 150 years ago, Florodora was offering male suitors some serious advice. The world was in the grips of a phrenology craze, and the ‘science’ of phrenology – which declared that the best way to read an individual’s character was through the shape of their skull – was making major waves. Prison colonies were being built on phrenological principles and none other than Queen Victoria herself was asking phrenologists to inspect her children.

Phrenology was pioneered by physicians such as Franz Joseph Gall (1758–1828), who believed that the brain is made up numerous organs, each linked to a faculty such as benevolence and destructiveness. As such, a protruding forehead – where the ‘perceptive’ organs resided – could indicate an impressive intellect, whereas a bump on the crown was the sign of a strong sense of morality.

These ideas certainly struck a chord. Phrenological societies sprang up from New York to Calcutta, and audiences were soon flocking to lectures on the science of the skull. These people genuinely believed that phrenology could make the world a better place.

How phrenology was used to…

Find the perfect wife:

For the Victorian bachelor, picking a wife could be tricky. Most were no doubt after someone who would conform to a male-dominated society: looking after the children and home, and taking an interest in her husband. But how could you be sure you were getting ‘the one’? Help came in the form of phrenology. Published in 1841, Coombe’s Popular Phrenology helpfully explained: “One of the first requisites in a good wife is to ascertain that she has a good head.”

Two phrenological organs were important: ‘Philoprogenitiveness’, which produced affection for children and ensured that your future wife would be a good mother; and ‘Amativeness’, which controlled sexual desire. Too little, and the wedding night might suffer. Too much, and you were at risk of being cuckolded.

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In a society in which it was believed that female sexuality should be carefully regulated, phrenological manuals on marriage proved incredibly popular.

Rehabilitate criminals:

Every week, a phrenological lecture was held at the women’s prison in New York. The matron, Mrs Farnham, decided that the Bible wasn’t doing the inmates much good. Instead, she started reading aloud from The Constitution of Man, George Combe’s classic exposition of the merits of phrenology. Soon, fellow reformers in Europe and Australia were also turning to phrenology in a bid to rehabilitate the growing prison population.

This was all part of a broader change in attitudes towards crime in the 19th century. Many started to see physical punishment as ineffective, a relic of a bygone era. Rather than executions and whippings, criminals needed to be reformed. New prisons became the markers of a modern civilised society.

But what characterised the criminal mind? And how could it be fixed? Enter phrenology. Mrs Farnham explained how the development of the brain distinguished criminals from the rest of the population. A large organ of ‘Acquisitiveness’ (just above the ear – see illustration right) increased the temptation to steal. This was particularly problematic if combined with a bump around the area associated with ‘Conscientiousness’. The warden hoped that once the inmates understood how their brains worked, they could practise more self-control.

Educate the ‘weak-minded’:

The world’s first ‘phrenological school’ was set up in Calcutta in 1825, the brainchild of East India Company surgeon George Murray Paterson. He was obsessed with the malleability of the brain and suspected that education could change the physical organisation of the mind.

Each morning the Bengali pupils had their heads measured with a pair of callipers. After six months Paterson found that the areas of the brain associated with intellect – at the front of the head – had apparently shown great improvement. This supposedly supported the typically racist colonial belief that Indians were degenerate and weak – it was thought only British education and culture could turn them into civilised subjects.

Campaign for the abolition of slavery:

Charles Caldwell was a slaveholder and a phrenologist, which wasn’t unusual. Phrenology found supporters right across the US in the 19th century, and particularly among southern plantation owners. It provided an apparent justification for slavery, one allegedly grounded in the latest scientific theories. Most disturbingly, skulls of murdered slaves were even sold to phrenological collectors.

Caldwell, a Kentucky physician, helped popularise the subject in the south. In the 1820s he travelled down the Mississippi river to New Orleans on lecture tours. According to Caldwell, Africans had small intellectual organs. These, combined with large animal organs, rendered them unfit for freedom.

What is fascinating, however, is the response from abolitionists. Rather than rejecting phrenology, many abolitionists thought it could be used to help their cause. According to them, African heads showed signs of “improvement” when slaves were given a proper education. This contradicted the claims of men like Caldwell who argued that Africans would never reach “an equality with the Caucasian”. Still, for those on the receiving end of slavery, even the abolitionist argument sounded pretty suspicious. Why bother with phrenology in the first place?

The African-American James McCune Smith, born a slave in New York, put it best. White abolitionists and slaveholders, he wrote, were just as guilty as each other, both subscribing to the “fallacy of phrenology”.

Start a revolution:

Gustav von Struve was the editor of Zeitschrift für Phrenologie, a phrenological journal published in Heidelberg, Germany. In the 1840s, Struve linked phrenology to his impassioned political campaigns. He wanted to bring democracy to Europe and end the stranglehold of the despotic princes. By 1848, Struve decided that he was tired of waiting.

This was the year in which a wave of revolutions swept across Europe. Struve joined the Hecker Uprising in Baden, determined to bring about political change by any means. “Phrenology is at the bottom of all my doings,” Struve explained in the middle of the violent rebellion. For him, this new mental science proved that all men and women, rich and poor, were subject to the same laws of nature. As such, men like Leopold I, the Grand Duke of Baden, had no right to tell the masses what to do. Phrenologically, the people of Europe were entitled to rule themselves.

Struve wasn’t the only revolutionary phrenologist. In France, supporters of the 1830 July Revolution founded the Paris Phrenological Society. In 1870s India, phrenology was taken up by anti-colonial nationalists, rallying against the injustices of British rule. And in the early 20th century, the first Chinese phrenological books were published in the wake of the 1911 revolution.

Entertain the masses:

Over 6 million people visited the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851. The Crystal Palace housed all the triumphs of the Victorian age. Those interested in the sciences could also see a complete collection of phrenological busts. They were the work of an artisan named William Bally, a popular lecturer based in Manchester. Bally’s busts were unique because they were manufactured as miniatures, small enough to fit in your pocket and take home as a souvenir.

The collection included something for everyone, from busts of painters, poets and famous Greek philosophers, like Aristotle, to criminals.

Phrenological lectures and museums also drew big crowds. The phrenologist George Combe conducted a two-year tour of the United States, selling out venues in New York City and Philadelphia. In Paris, visitors paid to see Pierre Dumoutier’s phrenological collection on rue de l’École-de-Médicine. The museum housed plaster busts of Pacific Islanders and West Indian slaves. For the French proprietor, the prize exhibit was a bust of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Exhibitions like these transformed phrenology into a social and political movement. Phrenology was a science of the people. It had something to offer no matter what your background – whether you were a working-class labourer or Queen Victoria herself.

Dr James Poskett is a historian of science, race and print at the University of Cambridge. He is the Adrian research fellow at Darwin College.


This article was first published in the Christmas 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine