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Phrenology in the Science and Culture of the 19th Century

Greenblatt, Samuel H. M.D.


IN THE LAST decade of the 18th century, Franz Joseph Gall of Vienna invented a combination of physiognomy and brain localization that he originally called “craniology” (the science of the head) and later called “organology” (the science of the organs of the brain). Between 1800 and 1812, he worked with Johann Christoph Spurzheim on a variety of important neuroanatomic studies to support this new science. By 1812, when they parted company in Paris, Spurzheim had become intrigued with the psychosocial potential of the undertaking, which he renamed “phrenology” (the science of the mind). Because a phrenological examination (palpation of skull prominences) could provide an analysis of a person's strengths and weaknesses, Spurzheim thought that his system could lead to personal improvement for everyone, including the laboring classes. He was thus a 19th century reformer, generally on the liberal side of the political and social spectrum. Spurzheim spread his gospel to Britain through several long lecture tours, and phrenology became briefly popular through the efforts of other British reformers, especially George Combe. In 1832, Spurzheim came to the United States. Three months later, he died in Boston, a martyr to his cause. Phrenology then spread widely into American popular culture, encouraged by the entrepreneurial efforts of “the phrenological Fowlers” and others like them. By 1843, the entire Western scientific community rejected organology and phrenology. All forms of cerebral localization were lumped with phrenology and similarly repudiated. Nonetheless, Gall's organology was the first comprehensive, premodern statement of a theory of cerebral localization. The early pioneers of modern localization, especially Paul Broca and David Ferrier, were careful to define how their theories differed from phrenology, even as they provided the clinical and scientific data that confirmed some of its basic tenets.

Brown University Program in Neurosurgery, Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island, Pawtucket, Rhode Island

Reprint requests: S.H. Greenblatt, M.D., Brown University Neurosurgery, Memorial Hospital, Pawtucket, RI 02860.

Received, November 9, 1994. Accepted, April 7, 1995.

Copyright © by the Congress of Neurological Surgeons