Reading Heads & Ruling Passions

Introduction | Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five

An Exhibition on Phrenology

Phrenology is commonly regarded derisively as a quirk of history, something best forgotten. However, an examination of the rise of phrenology in the early nineteenth century provides insights into the social, political and scientific transformations occurring in Britain and other English speaking countries.

Phrenology aroused the passions of its supporters and opponents. With the rise of 'practical' phrenologists in the mid nineteenth century, phrenology achieved wider popular appeal at the expense of its more elite supporters. Practical phrenology was at its height at the end of the nineteenth century, but persisted well into the twentieth century. As a window on cultural values phrenology deserves wider recognition than it has received.


Reading Heads & Ruling Passions has been prepared by the Macleay Museum with the participation of
Dr Michael Shortland and a group of History and Philosophy of Science students.

The Museum gratefully acknowledges the loan of items from:
Rare Books, Fisher Library
Psychology Department Museum
Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
History of Medicine Library, Royal Australasian College of Physicians
Justice and Police Museum
Brian Hill, 'The Glass Stopper' Antiques
Co-op Bookshop, Bay Street
and from private individuals.

Philadelphia Museum of Art kindly granted permission to reproduce an original artwork in their possession.

Part One - The Idea of Phrenology

Franz Joseph Gall (1758 - 1828)

Introduction | Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five

Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) was the founder of phrenology. He studied medicine at Strasbourg and Vienna. After receiving his medical degree in 1785 Gall developed a successful medical practice in Vienna. He also undertook research on neuroanatomy. He was joined by Johann Spurzheim as his assistant and collaborator in 1800.

Gall had noticed as a child and later at university that his fellow students with prominent eyes were good learners. From observations on other exceptional people he later developed his system of cranioscopy, matching talents to the shape of a person's head. Forbidden by the emperor from lecturing on his doctrine in Vienna, Gall, accompanied by Spurzheim, toured extensively through Europe between 1805 and 1807. Gall settled in Paris for the rest of his life.

Between 1810 and 1819, Gall published a four volume study of the anatomy and physiology of the nervous system and the brain with a large atlas of illustrations. This was produced partly in conjunction with Spurzheim, who broke with Gall in 1813.


Image courtesy of Malcom Macmillan


Image courtesy of Malcom Macmillan

Gall's organology of the mind was not directly based on his neuroanatomical research. Nevertheless it contributed to studying the mind biologically rather than philosophically.


Johann Caspar Spurzheim (1776-1832) adapted and developed Gall's cranioscopy, and vigorously promoted the study which became known as phrenology through lectures and publications.

Born in Germany, Spurzheim moved to Vienna where he met Gall and became his collaborator in neuroanatomical research. At the same time Spurzheim undertook medical studies in Vienna. He accompanied Gall on his tour of Europe and continued to collaborate in research. In 1813 they parted ways. Spurzheim by then had received his medical degree from Vienna and soon received a licence to practice from the Royal College of Physicians in London. He was sceptical of the state of medical knowledge and did not set up in practice.

Spurzheim published his Physiognomical System in 1815 and was soon busy defending and promoting his adaptation of Gall's ideas. The attack on this work in the Edinburgh Review soon drew him to the northern capital. Edinburgh was subsequently a major centre of debate on phrenology. Spurzheim spent much of the remainder of his life travelling and lecturing on phrenology. While visiting the United States he succumbed to illness. He initially avoided medical treatment and died in Boston in 1832.


One of numerous children of an Edinburgh brewer, George Combe (1788-1858) early made his own way in life. He trained as a lawyer, having his own practice from 1812.

Combe's first exposure to phrenology was the attack on Spurzheim in the Edinburgh Review. He subsequently attended Spurzheim's lectures and was impressed by his dissection of the brain. Combe began to investigate phrenology for himself and became a fervent champion of the doctrine. He published several articles on the subject which were gathered in Essays on Phrenology published in 1819.

Combe was a founder of the Phrenological Society in Edinburgh in 1820. He applied phrenological ideas to many social concerns including education and criminal reform. In 1836 Combe unsuccessfully applied for the chair of logic at the University of Edinburgh. The following year Combe was offered the chair of mental and moral philosophy at the newly founded University of Michigan. Although he did not accept the offer, he made an extended tour of the United States and Canada in the late 1830s.

Combe wrote numerous books on phrenology including The Constitution of Man which sold very widely. As one historian has summed him up, 'Lacking originality in almost all respects, Combe's place in history is as a moralizing popularizer of received ideas.'

The Idea of Phrenology

Gall's 'system of organology' was based on several principals:

  • the brain is the organ of the mind
  • the brain is not a single functional entity but a collection of organs representing the propensities, sentiments and faculties
  • these functions are located in specific parts of the brain
  • other things being equal, the size of each organ is indicative of its power
  • the shape and size of the cranium reflects the shape and size of the underlying organs and is thus indicative of the individual's mental faculties.

Gall's ideas were adapted and promoted by Spurzheim and Combe. The assignment of mental functions to particular parts of the brain soon became an established dogma.

Sir David Ferrier's neurophysiological experiments in the 1870s showed that there was indeed localisation of function in the brain. There was, however, little resemblance between these discoveries and Gall's localities. The legacy of Gall's work is not in the detail of his system but in the naturalisation of mind, investigating the functions of mind as a biological rather than philosophical subject.

Part Two - Early Phrenology

Introduction | Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five

Calves' Heads and Brains

Henry Aiken, "Calves' Heads and Brains; or a Phrenological Lecture", 1826

Phrenology was frequently satirised in writings and cartoons. Aiken's 'Phrenological Lecture' is possibly the most comprehensive cartoon poking fun at phrenology. The original is a hand-coloured soft-ground etching and engraving measuring 9 3/4 inches x 12 3/4 inches.

Philadelphia Museum of Art, SmithKline Beckman Corporation Fund

[Not available for reproduction in this web version of the exhibition]

'Common Sense' Philosophy

Thomas Reid, An Enquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (Glasgow, 1817) [autographed "Nicol D Stenhouse / Solr / Sydney"]

Dugald Stewart, Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind (New Edition, London, 1837) [autographed "Nicol D. Stenhouse"]

Scotland had a long tradition of learning. At the end of the eighteenth century, Edinburgh in particular was a notable centre of learning in philosophy, medicine and geology. The Edinburgh moral philosophers used the method of reflection. As Thomas Reid said, 'the chief and proper source of this branch of knowledge is accurate reflection upon the operation of our own minds'. Dugald Stewart and Thomas Reid were leading exponents of Common Sense philosophy.

In contrast, the phrenologists emphasised the brain as the organ of the mind. The phrenological approach, based on physically located organs as the seat of different faculties, considered individual psychological differences. The philosophers sought through reflection to reveal the universal characteristics of the mind. Edinburgh became the principal focus of debate over phrenology in the 1810s and 1820s.

Edinburgh Review

Dr John Gordon's hostile attack on Spurzheim's Physiognomical System in the Edinburgh Review brought Spurzheim to Edinburgh. Spurzheim's lectures and dissections brought him several supporters including George Combe.


Spurzheim produced this pamphlet in response to his Edinburgh critics, particularly Dr John Gordon (1786-1818), the author of the attack in the Edinburgh Review. It discusses detail of anatomical structure.

Rare Books (PC 91)

'Phrenology' named


Gall had called his study of the mind 'cranioscopy'. The term 'phrenology' was introduced in 1815 by Thomas Forster (1789-1860), from the Greek words for mind and discourse. Forster was acquainted with several of the leading scientists of his day and published several scientific papers. He first became acquainted with Gall's ideas in 1806 and later met Spurzheim in London. Forster was the first person to lecture on phrenology in Edinburgh in 1816. He introduced the term 'phrenology' in a paper in the Philosophical Magazine and this 'pamphlet' in The Pamphleteer.

Fisher Library

Mr Cranium lectures on phrenology

Here is the skull of a tiger. Your observe the organ of carnage. Here is the skull of a fox. You observe the organ of plunder. Here is the skull of a peacock. You observe the organ of vanity. Here is the skull of an illustrious robber, who, after a long and triumphant process of depredation and murder, was suddenly checked in his career by means of a certain quality inherent in preparations of hemp, which, for the sake of perspicuity, I shall call suspensiveness.

This extract from Thomas Love Peacock's novel, Headlong Hall, published in 1816, is a very early example of phrenology satirised.

Elements of Phrenology

'Many persons desire to know something about Phrenology, who nevertheless are not prepared to bestow much either of time or money in the pursuit of it. There are others who, fully convinced of its truth and importance, wish to possess a manual to facilitate their practice of its doctrines. The present work is intended to serve both classes, by conveying a brief but comprehensive view of the science at a moderate expence.' Elements reached its eighth edition in 1855 and was translated into French in 1836.

Rare Books (PC 23)


Combe on Education

George Combe, Remarks on National Education: Being an Enquiry into the Right and Duty of Government to Educate the People (Fifth Edition, Edinburgh, 1848)

George Combe was a proponent of education at a time when few had access to it. Four of his pamphlets on education are bound in this volume.

Rare Books (PC 25)

A 'most absurd hypothesis'

The Edinburgh Review was a consistent and pungent critic of phrenology. The clash was as much one of underlying philosophical principles as of scientific 'facts'. As the Edinburgh Reviewer asserted: 'The truth, we do not scruple to say it, is, that there is not the smallest reason for supposing that the mind ever operates through the agency of any material organs, except in its perception of material objects ...' By seeking to naturalise the mind phrenology threatened the religious and philosophical principles then prevailing.

Rare Books (PC 19)

The Constitution of Man

George Combe, The Constitution of Man considered in relation to external objects. Fourth Edition. Edinburgh, 1836 [shown right]

Rare Books (PC 27)

Combe's most famous work was originally published in 1828. One reader impressed by the work was W.R. Henderson who bequeathed funds for the promotion of phrenology. He suggested that funds should go to publish a cheap edition of The Constitution of Man, 'so as to be easily purchased by the more intelligent individuals of the poorer classes, and Mechanics Institutions, &c.'.

With the appearance of 'The People's Edition' in October 1835, sales sky-rocketed. 32,000 copies were printed within a year. While the cheap edition cost one shilling and sixpence, thousands of the more expensive edition were also sold in Britain. Editions were produced in the United States and translations published in France and Sweden.

Phrenology and Religion


William Scott joined the Edinburgh Phrenological Society in 1822, becoming its President in 1825. He could not share Combe's views, particularly as expressed in The Constitution of Man. Combe imputed to 'natural law' concepts which conflicted with religious belief.

With respect to Revelation, as Mr Combe's system is not founded on it, he has no occasion to speak of it at all. He has done so, however, and has written an entire chapter on the Connection of Science and Scripture. In this, and throughout his book, though he seems to admit the reality of revelation, it is perfectly clear that he entertains no confidence in its power and efficacy as an instrument for the improvement of the human race.

Rare Books (PC81)

Mrs Pugh and religious anxieties


Combe's Constitution of Man struck a cord with many people's experience of the differences in human character. Mrs Pugh had been a teacher for many years when she read The Constitution of Man:

Light broke in upon my mind. The experience that I had gathered, and the fact which came under my daily observation, so entirely corresponded with much that I met with upon its pages, that I could not withhold the assent of my judgment, or come to any other conclusion than that the science of Phrenology has truth for its basis.

Some of Combe's book confronted her with 'serious difficulties':

My mind was painfully exercised while I read, again and again, the 9th chapter, "On the Relation between Science and Scripture." Many of the views seemed to be at variance with Revelation. I could not disbelieve the evidence of my senses on the one hand, or relinquish my hope of Scripture truth on the other. To recede appeared to be folly; to advance, madness. ... "Perish the knowledge of the science," I thought, "if it can only be obtained by the abandonment of my hopes for eternity!" ... but, after all, Mr. Combe's work had given me more light and assistance than I had obtained from any other source [on education], and, after I had laid it aside, I found myself constantly acting upon the ideas I had received from its perusal.

Rare Books (PC79)

Phrenological Baronet


Sir George MacKenzie (1780-1848) became interested in phrenology during the debates between John Gordon and Spurzheim in Edinburgh in 1817. His conversion was completed with his phrenological delineation the following year. Illustrations of Phrenology was dedicated to Spurzheim 'who has, by the efforts of a powerful mind, and by the greatest personal exertions, given to [phrenology] the Philosophical character which it now bears, and which it will most assuredly maintain'. MacKenzie was closely associated with several scientific disciplines, particularly mineralogy and geology. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1799 and of the Royal Society of London in 1815.

Rare Books (PC 66)

John Elliotson

J. Fred. Blumenbach, M.D., The Institutions of Physiology, Translated from the Latin of the Thisd and Last Edition, and supplied with Copious Notes, By John Elliotson, M.D. (London, 1820)

Elliotson supplied 'copious notes' to his translation of Blumenbach's Institutions of Physiology, published in London in 1820. Among these was a lengthy note (pp. 32-33) on Gall and Spurzheim's ideas: 'I should be extremely sorry to affirm that this is a complete or accurate account of the faculties, sentiments, and propensities of the human mind, or that Dr. Spurzheim's book contains no bad reasoning nor ridiculous illustration; but I am convinced that Dr. Gall has given us the first correct sketch of the constituents of the human mind, whatever more labour may be necessary to complete the detail, and has put us in the only right road for learning all that can be known of it.'

Royal Australasian College of Physicians

John Epps

John Epps, M.D., Epilepsy, A Case of Twenty Years Standing Cured (London, 1834)

An Edinburgh medical graduate, Epps (1805-1869) was characteristic of many of the early supporters of phrenology. He was associated with radical causes, including free trade and republicanism. He stood for Parliament with Chartist backing in 1847. He wrote on medicine, botany, grammar and religion, and edited several medical and phrenological journals. He was a member of the phrenological societies of Edinburgh and London, and lectured on phrenology.

Rare Books (PC33)

Hewett Watson


Best known for his studies in British topographical botany, Hewett Cottrell Watson (1804-1881) studied medicine in Edinburgh where he met George Combe. In 1836 Watson published Statistics of Phrenology: being a sketch of the progress and present science in the British Islands. He gathered information on phrenological societies, lecturers and publications throughout Britain to encourage the scattered supporters of phrenology: 'The open adherents of the science have hitherto been like so many isolated individuals scattered throughout Britain, unaware of their own collective strength, and exerting little encouraging influence upon each other. They have been accustomed to meet with opponents more frequently than with friends.' Watson found that there were 24 phrenological societies throughout Britain with a membership of 900, and that altogether there were some 100,000 'believers in phrenology'. Watson subsequently edited the Journal of Phrenology (1837-1841) but then turned away from the study and devoted himself to his botanical studies.

Rare Books (PC 98)



Joseph Stordy Hodgson rejected the idea of secular education and attacked phrenology on religious grounds.

Rare Books (PC 47)

Phrenology in France

M. Broussais, Lectures on Phrenology, delivered in the University of Paris (London, 1847)

In 1836 François Broussais presented a series of twenty lectures on phrenology at the University of Paris, where he was professor of general pathology in the faculty of medicine. These were translated into English and published in the medical journal, The Lancet, the same year. These issues, of which Broussais's lectures formed the bulk, also contained other medical matters, and were republished in 1847. Thomas Wakley, editor of The Lancet, was a member of the London Phrenological Society and had published Spurzheim's course of lectures in 1825.

Royal Australasian College of Physicians

Samuel Bailey

Samuel Bailey, Letters on the Philosophy of the Human Mind. First Series (London, 1855)

A political radical and member of the Sheffield Political Union, Bailey had been a supporter of phrenology in the 1820s and early 1830s. Phrenology had been introduced to Sheffield in 1824 by the medical man and reformer, Hall Overend, in a series of lectures to the Literary and Philosophical Society. Numerous leading citizens were attracted to the science, and when it was attacked in the Society in 1825, Samuel Bailey (1791-1870) was among those who came to Overend's defence. Phrenology reached its zenith among the Sheffield elite with the arrival of Spurzheim in 1829. He lectured to a 'respectable, numerous and attentive' audience, and Bailey was among those who joined Spurzheim over dinner to discuss phrenology. Interest in phrenology fell away rapidly in Sheffield after 1832 until it was revived for a working class audience in the 1840s. Bailey discussed phrenology in his second series of Letters on the Philosophy of the Human Mind published in 1858.

Fisher Library (from the library of N.D. Stenhouse)

Part Three - Later Phrenology

Introduction | Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five

Phrenology Collection in the Rare Book Library

This exhibition is based in part on an extensive collection of phrenological books acquired by the Rare Book department of Fisher Library last year[1994]. In addition to the early 19th century books shown in nearby cases, later 19th and 20th century books are also well represented.

The Hand Phrenologically Considered: Being a glimpse at the relation of the mind with the organisation of the body. London, 1848
(PC 2)

The Hand Phrenologically Considered

James C.L. Carson, M.D., The Fundamental Principles of Phrenology are the only principles capable of being reconciled with the immateriality and immortality of the soul, London, 1868
(PC 14)

James P. Browne, M.D. (Edin.), Phrenology; and its application to education, insanity, and prison discipline, London, 1869
(PC 12)

Eneas MacKenzie, Phrenology Explained and Exemplified, London, (n.d.)
(PC )

A.L. Vago, Orthodox Phrenology, Second Edition, London, 1871
(PC 97)

Stackpool E. O'Dell and Geelossapuss E. O'Dell, Phrenology: Essays and Studies, London: The Phrenological Institution, 1899
(PC 73)

John William Taylor, The Revised Twentieth-Century Phrenology, embracing a new seven-fold classification of the temperaments; a uniform and complete nomenclature of the centres; re-grouping of the centres; new illustrations; new discoveries, Morecambe, 1901
(PC 95)

J.P. Blackford, F.B.P.S., Phrenology: The Science of the Mind. The Student's Enchyridion, London: The British Phrenological Society, Incorporated, 1914
(PC 9)

Stackpool. E. O'Dell, Heads and How to Read Them. A Popular Guide to Phrenology, London, (n.d.)
(PC 74)

J. Millott Severn, F.B.P.S., Popular Phrenology, Second Edition, London, 1918
(PC 84)

J. Millott Severn, F.B.P.S., Phrenology: The Language of the Mental Faculties, Definitions, Combinations, etc, Brighton, (n.d. [1937?])
(PC 83)

W. Asquith, M.B.P.S., Phrenology: The Science of Brain and Mind, Hull, 1940
(PC 3)

Phrenological Charts

Phrenological Chart. By Professor W. Cross (Seven Years at the Royal Aquarium, London), (n.p.), 1892
(PC 30)

A Phrenological Chart of Character. By Stackpool E. O'Dell and Mrs. Stackpool E. O'Dell. Twenty-Third Edition - Three Hundred and Tenth Thousand. London: The Phrenological Institution, (n.d.) [filled in, 1921]
(PC 70)

A Phrenological Chart of Character. By Stackpool E. O'Dell and Mrs. Stackpool E. O'Dell. Thirty-First Edition - Three Hundred and Forty Sixth Thousand. London: The Phrenological Institution, (n.d.) [filled in, 1932]
(PC 69)

Phrenological Journals

The first phrenological journal was started by the Edinburgh Phrenological Society in 1823. Several later journals are shown here.

The Phrenological Journal. Vol. XXII, July to December 1880. New York, Fowler & Wells, 1880

The Phrenological Magazine: A journal of education and mental science. Vol. III [p. 309]. London, L.N. Fowler, 1882

The Phrenological Magazine, Vol. IV, 1883 [cover]

The Popular Phrenologist. Vol. VIII, No. 91, July 1903

The Phrenologist. The organ of the Incorporated British Phrenological Society. No. 41, Dec.-Jan., 1911-12

Phrenology, The Science of Mind. (formerly The Phrenologist). The Organ of the British Phrenological Society Incorporated. No. 1. January 1927

Phrenological Bust

'Modelled by A.L. Vago, London, 1893'. A 'Miniature Phrenological Cabinet, or Series of Small Models, reduced by A.L. Vago, from casts of criminal and other heads, intended as Illustrations for the use of Students and Teachers of Phrenology' was issued in London in the 1860s.

Private Collection

Mark Twain on Itinerant Phrenologists

Phrenology found many a bump on a man's head and it labeled each bump with a formidable and outlandish name of its own. The phrenologist took great delight in mouthing these great names; they gurgled from his lips in an easy and unembarrassed stream, and this exhibition of cultivated facility compelled the envy and admiration of everybody. By and by the people became familiar with these strange names and addicted to the use of them and they batted them back and forth in conversation with deep satisfaction - a satisfaction which could hardly have been more contenting if they had known for certain what the words meant.

Part Four - Phrenology in America

Introduction | Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five

Phrenological ideas were first brought to America by imported publications and by returning Americans who had heard phrenological lectures in Europe. Spurzheim's visit to America in 1832 attracted the attention of a section of the educated elite. Numerous American books on phrenology were published in the 1830s along with American editions of the works of Spurzheim and Combe. Combe himself visited America on an extended lecture tour in the late 1830s. Among the Americans attracted to the new study were Orson Fowler and his brother Lorenzo. From the 1840s they produced cheap popular works based on phrenology. The name of Fowler is almost inseparable from popular or practical phrenology. Lorenzo went on a lecture tour to England in 1860, and subsequently set up business there. With the American enthusiasm for contraptions it is not surprising that a mechanical head reader, the Psychograph, was produced in the United States in the late 1920s.

Spurzheim in America

Invited to America, Spurzheim arrived in New York in August 1832. He soon made his way to Boston, visiting Yale College and other institutions on the way. He lectured on phrenology to the public in Boston, generating a great deal of interest. Spurzheim overtaxed himself and fell ill. He died on 10 November and the Boston Phrenological Society was founded on the day of his funeral. In the following years, phrenology attracted the attention of leading figures in Boston and other cities.


J.G. Spurzheim, M.D., Phrenology, or the Doctrine of the Mental Phenomena. Fourth American Edition, Greatly improved by the authorfrom the third London edition. Boston: Marsh, Capen and Lyon, 1835

Authorised Bust

An Epitome of Phrenology; being an outline of the science as taught by Gall, Spurzheim and Combe; to accompany a Chart delineated according to this system, or the Marked Bust approved by Dr Spurzheim. Boston: Marsh, Capen & Lyon, 1835

This bust is inscribed on the back: 'This Bust Approved By Dr Spurzheim'. It was sold with the accompanying book to Boston's converts to phrenology in the years following Spurzheim's death.

Psychology Department Museum

Amos Dean (1803-1868)

Amos Dean, Letters on Phrenology: delivered before the Young Men's Association for the Mutual Improvement of the City of Albany. Albany, 1834

A well known lawyer and educator in Albany, New York, Dean was part of the wave of enthusiasm for phrenology among the educated elite in the 1830s. He was appointed to the governing body of the American Institute of Phrenology, a training college for practitioners. He was inspired by Spurzheim: 'Scarcely ... was the stranger welcomed, ere he passed away. Yet he came not in vain. The great, and the good, and the gifted, saw and heard, and were convinced.' Dean subsequently became professor of medical jurisprudence at Albany Medical College and later Chancellor of the University of Iowa.

Royal Australasian College of Physicians

Silas Jones

Silas Jones, Practical Phrenology. Boston: Russell, Shattuck, & Williams, 1836

Silas Jones had lectured on phrenology in several States, 'at the same time having made observations upon the character and organization of several thousands of individuals, principally of the middle and higher classes' before publishing Practical Phrenology in 1836. He was appointed head of the New York Asylum for the Blind in 1838.

Rare Books (PC 57)

Thomas Sewell

Thomas Sewell, M.D., An Examination of Phrenology; in two lectures, delivered to the students of the Columbian College, District of Columbia, February, 1837. Washington City, 1837

Phrenology was frequently attacked on religious or philosophical grounds. Thomas Sewell, professor of anatomy and physiology at Washington's Columbian College, attacked phrenology on anatomical grounds in two lectures originally given in 1826. He argued that dissection of the brain did not reveal any clear organs or compartments and volume of brain was not directly related to powers of intelligence.

Rare Books (PC 86)

J. Stanley Grimes (1807-1903)

J. Stanley Grimes, A New System of Phrenology. Buffalo, 1839

A New System of Phrenology was published in 1839 in Buffalo where Grimes was president of the Western Phrenological Society. A lawyer who practiced in Boston and New York, Grimes was first attracted to phrenology in 1832. He developed his own 'new system' of phrenology with a three-fold division of functions into ipseal (self-regarding), social (other-regarding) and intellectual (relation regarding). This was championed by the Phrenological Society of Albany but was attacked by O.S. Fowler and made little headway. Grimes later developed an interest in mesmerism and very late in life published Phreno-Physiology (1893).

Rare Books (PC 46)

System of Phrenology

George Combe, A System of Phrenology. The only complete American edition, being from the fourth and last (revised and enlarged) Edinburgh edition. New York & Boston, 1844

Combe's System of Phrenology was in its first edition called Essays on Phrenology. This was published in 1819, and brought together his first published essays which appeared the previous year in the Literary and Statistical Magazine for Scotland.

Rare Books (PC 21)

Orson Squire Fowler (1809-1887)

O.S. Fowler and his younger brother, Lorenzo Niles Fowler, were the leading proponents of practical phrenology in the United States in the mid 19th century. It has been said that they phrenologised America and Americanised phrenology. The Fowlers formed a partnership with S.R. Wells in 1844. The firm of Fowler and Wells continued into this century although the Fowlers had withdrawn from the partnership in 1863. Lorenzo established a successful firm in London which is best remembered for the fine ceramic busts it sold.

Lydia Folger Fowler

Mrs. L.N. Fowler, Familiar Lessons on Phrenology, designed for the use of children and youth in schools and families. Twelfth Thousand. New York: Fowler and Wells, 1860

The Fowler empire was an extended family business. Lorenzo's wife Lydia not only took an active part in the business, but became the second woman to graduate from an American medical college. She graduated from the Central Medical College of Rochester, New York, in 1850. Her Familiar Lessons on Phrenology were first published in 1847.

Rare Books (PC 36)

Phrenology Proved

O.S. and L.N. Fowler, Phrenology Proved, Illustrated, and Applied; embracing an analysis of the primary mental powers in their various degrees of developments. The phenomena produced by their combined activity. And the Location of the Phrenological Organs in the Head. Together with a view of the moral and anatomical objections to the science. London: L.N. Fowler, 1892

The Fowlers' first book, with its characteristically long title, was first published in 1835.

Rare Books (PC 39)


L.N. Fowler, Marriage: Its History and Ceremonies; with a phrenological and physiological exposition of the functions and qualifications for happy marriages. Twenty second Edition. New York: S.R. Wells & Co.

In a setting of immigrant communities and mobile populations, the supports and constraints of a settled society were largely missing. Books guiding people towards happy marriage were bought in large numbers.

Rare Books (PC 35)

The Ever Interesting Topic

Sex as a selling point for modern magazines is nothing new. O.S. Fowler's Creative and Sexual Science or Manhood, Womanhood, and their mutual interrelations; Love, its Laws, Power, etc. ... as taught by Phrenology and Physiology is an encyclopaedic compilation of advice about sex, published in the 1870s.

Royal Australasian College of Physicians

Fowler Bust

The best known phrenological busts are those produced by L.N. Fowler. This example, dating from the 1880s, is unusual in having its original travelling case.

Brian Hill, 'The Glass Stopper' Antiques

American Methods

O.S. Fowler, Works on Phrenology, Physiology, and Kindred Subjects. Manchester, (n.d.)

Ten pamphlets are included in this volume, with a strong emphasis on 'amativeness' and matrimony. One pamphlet is devoted to 'Intemperance and Tight Lacing; founded on the Laws of Life, as developed by Phrenology and Physiology'. Characteristic of the Fowlers' approach to promoting practical phrenology, the book was cheaply produced as the poor quality of the paper indicates. It was clearly intended by its Manchester printer for working-class homes. The American impact on British manufacturing and workers extended to the binding of the book: 'Wire Sewn by Brehmer's Patent American Wire Book Sewing Machine, 1877'.

Royal Australasian College of Physicians


Clinton Hall - The Fowlers occupied part of Clinton Hall in New York from the late 1830s until the mid 1850s. With their casts and busts, they offered a rival attraction to P.T. Barnum's museum.

Phrenological Museum, 1860 - Fowler & Wells also ran a patent agency.

The Examining Room at Fowler & Wells phrenological museum, New York, 1860

The Fowler and Wells New York office at the end of the 19th century

Nelson Sizer, a prominent phrenologist associated with the Fowlers, in his consulting room

Mark Twain Investigates Phrenology

In London, 33 or 34 years ago, I made a small test of phrenology for my better information. I went to Fowler under an assumed name and he examined my elevations and depressions and gave me a chart which I carried home to the Langham Hotel and studied with great interest and amusement - the same interest and amusement which I should have found in the chart of an imposter who had passed himself off for me and who did not resemble me in a single sharply defined detail. I waited 3 months and went to Mr. Fowler again, heralding my arrival with a card bearing both my name and my nom de guerre. Again I carried away an elaborate chart. It contained several sharply defined details of my character, but it bore no recognizable resemblance to the earlier chart. These experiences gave me a prejudice against phrenology which has lasted until now. I am aware that the prejudice should have been against Fowler, instead of the art; but I am human and that is not the way prejudices act.

Part Five - Phrenology in Australia

Introduction | Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five

Australia was of special interest to phrenologists. With a society founded on transportation, some phrenologists in Britain were concerned that innate criminal tendencies would be reinforced and argued that convicts should be phrenologically assessed for their suitability. In Australia there was a call for a phrenological society to be founded as early as 1825. A renewed call a few years later seems to have met no greater success although a detailed prospectus was put forward. Later the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts, founded in 1833, provided a setting for phrenological lectures. Practical phrenologists were familiar figures in Australian cities and country towns from the middle of the 19th century.

Prospectus of the Proposed Australian Phrenological Society

The objects of this Society are as follows:-

  • To give descriptive and explanatory lectures on the bones of the head, on the brain, and the mapping of the head, according to Gall and Spurzheim's system.
  • To collect casts of the heads of famous characters, of notorious characters of whatever description, and of the heads of different nations, or races of the human species.
  • To form a museum illustrative of the comparative anatomy, particularly of the head in the brute creation.
  • To collect specimens of malformations of the head and form generally.
  • To cultivate, as far as it is found compatible with our other objects, the kindred science of Physiognomy.

In a promotion of many of which objects, it is also proposed -

  • To open correspondence with various Societies of a similar description at home and abroad.
  • To procure all the best works, both British and Foreign, on the subject of Phrenology.
  • To criticise works on the subject; and, finally,
  • To collect and preserve any other original papers on that subject, whether the productions of our own members, or of strangers.
  • To the above, however, may be annexed, with perhaps no small advantage, in order to complete, as far as possible, the natural history of man, an investigation of the different varieties and various correspondent peculiarities of the human form generally, more particularly as connected with those of the cranium - opening a field of research, as well as we are aware, but little trodden hitherto, and of an almost unlimited extent and interest.

School of Arts

The Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts was founded in 1833. It was the principal venue in Sydney for evening lectures to adult audiences on scientific and literary subjects. The building in Pitt Street is today a sad relic of its former imposing character.

[Photograph] Government Printing Office Collection, State Library of New South Wales

MR. STEWART will deliver his Second Lecture within the Theatre of the School of Arts, This Evening, at eight o'clock.
Admission to any single lecture, two shillings and sixpence each.
January 17.

Phrenology was popularised in Australia through lectures. These were often held in Mechanics' Institutes. The advertisement above, from the Sydney Morning Herald, is for a lecture at the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts in 1842.

Skull with phrenological delineations

Skull with phrenological delineations

Skulls and casts of heads as well as busts were gathered by phrenologists and phrenological societies from an early date. This carefully marked skull was probably used by a phrenological lecturer in Sydney in the 19th century to demonstrate the science to his audience.

Macleay Museum

Sir Thomas Mitchell (1792-1855)

Portrait painted about the time when Mitchell received his knighthood.

Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Mitchell on Phrenology

Phrenology emphasised differences in the talents of individuals. It was therefore attractive to ambitious young men seeking preferment on the basis of talent when advancement was more often based on ancestry. Thomas Mitchell, an ambitious army officer in England, used his talents to the extreme to achieve prominence. He probably made these notes on phrenology in the early 1820s. He came to Sydney a few years later and was Surveyor-General of New South Wales from 1828 until his death.

[manuscript notebook] Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Nicol D. Stenhouse (1806-1873)

Born in Scotland, Stenhouse graduated M.A. from the University of Edinburgh in 1825. He then qualified as a lawyer and in 1839 migrated to Sydney. With a strong interest in literature he amassed an extensive library which he made available to colonial literary figures. He is regarded as probably the foremost literary patron in Sydney in the 19th century. As the adjacent letter shows, Stenhouse knew George Combe in Edinburgh. His library contained several books on phrenology, some of which he seems to have acquired in Sydney. When he died his library was bought by Thomas Walker and presented to the University of Sydney . Several books from Stenhouse's library are shown in this exhibition.

Invitation from George Combe

In this 1829 note, Combe invited Stenhouse, then in Edinburgh, to attend a phrenological discussion:

Several Phrenologists sup with me this evening, and we always succeed best with difficult points when a number are together. If, therefore, you can conveniently come here at ¼ past nine, I shall be happy to introduce to them, & we shall start the question incidentally leaving you entirely at liberty to take such share of the conversation as you may incline.

Stenhouse attended along with Sir George MacKenzie, Andrew Combe and others.

Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Combe and Spurzheim

George Combe, The Constitution of Man considered in relation to external objects
Henderson Edition. Edinburgh, 1835 [signed "Nicol D. Stenhouse / Solr / Sydney"]

J.G. Spurzheim, M.D., The Anatomy of the Brain, with a general view of the Nervous System. First American Edition, revised by Charles H. Stedman, M.D. Boston: Marsh, Capen & Lyon, 1834 [signed "NDS"]

Combe's Constitution of Man was one of several books on phrenology in the library of Nicol Stenhouse. Others are shown elsewhere in this exhibition.

Fisher Library, University of Sydney


James Shepherd, Phrenological Chart and Register, 1879
Royal Australasian College of Physicians

Professor Joseph de Blumenthal, Phrenological and Physiognomical Chart of Character and Abilities. Sydney, 1883
Two copies of this 12-page booklet are shown, filled in in January and February 1884.
Private Collection

A Delineation of Character

Rev. Ralph Brown, A Delineation of the Character, Talents, Physiological Developments and Natural Adaptations of M... Melbourne, 1894
[pp. 24-25, "Animal Propensities" of Ned and Dan Kelly illustrated]

Ralph Brown of Melbourne gave his delineations as annotations to a 54-page booklet printed for him in 1894. What it is that indicates the large animal propensities of 'the Notorious Australian Bushranger', Ned Kelly, other than his known history, Brown does not make clear.

Royal Australasian College of Physicians

Death Masks

Death masks

Interest in the heads of the famous and infamous led phrenologists and phrenological societies to make collections of life masks and death masks. Several criminals in Australia were preserved in effigy after they had been hanged so that the phrenological evidence of their criminal natures might be observed. The bushrangers, Captain Moonlite (Andrew George Scott) and Thomas Rogan were hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol on 20 January 1880. With the permission of Sir Henry Parkes, the sculptor and phrenologist, McGill then took casts of their heads.

Justice and Police Museum, Sydney

McGill on Captain Moonlite

Moonlite's head was so peculiarly formed that it was impossible he could speak the truth, or be honest; that it was devoid of all moral courage, and hence would keep up to the last what he once said; that he could not brook contradiction; and that he had such a love of life and its pleasures, that he cared not how he gained his ends.

Cane Handle

The rise of phrenology in Britain paralleled the rise of consumerism. Diverse phrenological products were produced to meet the appetite of consumers. There were phrenological snuff boxes and phrenological inkwells - presumably to inspire writers to their best thoughts - as well as cane handles such as the one shown here.

Private Collection


Numerous practical phrenologists were operating in Australia in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Comments concerning several of these readings indicate how accurate they were. Clearly successful practitioners were generally very good judges of character.

All written on printed forms except the first:

Madam Nettlefold, Bathurst, New South Wales, 1882

Professor G.A. de Blumenthal, (Sydney?), 1903

W. Warrener, Melbourne, 1904

Robert White, Auburn, Sydney, 1914 - reading of his daughter-in-law, Isabel White

Professor A.J. Abbott, Sydney, 1940

Robert White (1851-1917)

Robert White

For many years White lectured on phrenology and gave phrenological readings in New South Wales and New Zealand. The reading of his daughter-in-law Isabel White is shown elsewhere in the exhibition.

Private Collection

Tasmanian Phrenological Society

John J. Sheridan, M.T.P.S., Phrenology. A few words on the subject, with introduction by Alfred J. Taylor, Librarian - Tasmanian Public Library, and preface by Willoughby Connor, President of the Tasmanian Phrenological Society. Hobart: Tasmanian Phrenological Society, 1890.

Phrenologists had visited Tasmania at least as early as the 1850s. From this period on phrenologists who saw their subject as a serious scientific study sought to defend their interest from ridicule. They saw their science 'degraded by the utterances of itinerant Charlatans who have lectured for gate-money, and professed to delineate character at half-a-crown a-head', as Alfred Taylor said in the introduction to this 17-page pamphlet. Indeed the Tasmanian Phrenological Society had a bye-law seeking to check what diplomas or certificates were held by travelling phrenologists. 'If they refuse to be examined, two notices will appear in each paper, warning the Members that the Society do not recognise them as exponents of Phrenology.'

Royal Australasian College of Physicians

Original Phrenological Readings

Phrenological Descriptive Chart and Human Science Register of Mental and Physical Conditions. Printed booklet, 32 pp. plus covers; label covering part of cover with stamp of Henry Jones, Bathurst Street Sydney 'ESTAB. 1895'. Second copy without cover. Both filled in in 1918.

A.J. Abbott, printed 4 p. chart, 1924

J. Carr, Maroubra Junction (Sydney), 1937, hand-written sheet

O.S. and L.N. Fowler, Phrenology Proved, Illustrated, and Applied (n.d.) New York: Fowler & Wells Co., Melbourne and London: L.N. Fowler & Co.

Rare Books (PC 38)

Edmund Butler

Master Butler's mental faculties were delineated by J.L. Kelley in January 1885. An extensive report is written on the back. [photograph and printed chart]

Haigwood Masters


For many years Masters maintained a successful vocational guidance and personnel advisory service in Sydney. He incorporated elements of phrenology into his practice. His phrenological bust and calipers are shown here.

[Photograph of Masters, his original art deco bust, and his calipers, also panel showing reproductions of 'The Haigwood Masters' Character Analysis Chart', in four aspects.]


What Your Face Reveals

Haigwood Masters' articles on character analysis had originally appeared in the newspaper. They were republished in this booklet in 1944.

Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Persistent imagery

The iconography of phrenology is so striking and appealing that it has survived the practice. Phrenological heads are reproduced and imitated in advertisements and television programs. Replica busts are available in several sizes and designs. The imagery has taken on a life of its own. The Sydney retailer REMO has imitated the phrenological head for its logo and retails replica heads.

[Modern retail goods from REMO reflecting the use of phrenological symbolism: small reproduction bust with leaflet and cardboard box, shower cap with REMO head diagram mounted on wire profile head, REMO poster and order booklet.]