Phrenological bust by LN FowlerPhrenological bust by LN FowlerThe History of Phrenology on the Web

by John van Wyhe

Donovan, Cornelius (c. 1820-72)

Cornelius Donovan was a London based "Professional Phrenologist, Doctor of philosophy, [and] Fellow of the Ethnological Society" from the early 1840s to the 1870s. Very little biographical material is known about Donovan. In February 1840 he founded the London School of Phrenology (later the London Phrenological Institute) in the Strand and later on Trafalgar Square. He also became a member of the Phrenological Association in 1840. Donovan was a practical phrenologist in that he spent most of his phrenological efforts in itinerant lecturing and reading heads. He made plaster casts and offered courses of nine private lectures for 3 guineas, 5 guineas for two persons taking the lessons together, and 6 guineas for three persons. He lectured throughout England especially in the Southeast and the Midlands and also in Scotland and Ireland. For example he gave special instruction to a phrenology class at the Western Literary Institute, Leicester Square, London, in 1842. In 1843 he gave a course of four lectures in Leicester. In 1849 he debated phrenology with the evangelical Congregationalist clergyman Brewin Grant in Birmingham.

Unlike his competitor James De Ville, Donovan was an educated man judging from the extensive literary references and quotations from scientific and classical works which pervade his writings. He published occasional articles in the Phrenological Journal, typically on the delineation of a famous criminal's head. Donovan's main work was a small book called A Handbook of Phrenology (1870). Most of the phrenology practised by Donovan was the usual British fare-36 faculties, sentiments and rhetoric borrowed from the COMBES. Although he copied illustrations from later editions of Combe's Constitution of Man (1828) Donovan's phrenology was not simply a copy of the leading phrenologists' works. Donovan saw phrenology as a sub-department of physiognomy and he practised it accordingly. In addition to surveying the general shape and especially the size and circumference of a head to start with, Donovan would also attend to the folds of the ears and the shape of the hands to determine the constitutional disposition to various ailments. Following these general assessments Donovan practised his own art of head manipulation in which he felt the organs of the head in a particular order and manner with his hands. Unusually, Donovan's book provided illustrations on his art of manipulation. Contrary to the usual historical interpretations, Donovan made no references to altering or reforming society, education or religion. Instead he stressed the need for the use of phrenology in deriving knowledge about the characteristics of ones self and especially others. He left a number of pupils to carry on his practical phrenological works including his son Henry Cornelius Donovan (b. 1846), who acquired the London practice, and Ebenezer Eve.


London Phrenological Institution (1840).

A Handbook of Phrenology (1870).

Further Reading

Cooter, R., Phrenology in the British Isles: An Annotated, Historical Bibliography and Index (1989).

Donovan, H.C., 'The Late Dr. Donovan's system of Manipulation', Phrenological Record, 1, July (1892), pp. 4-5.

Grant, Discussion on Phrenology; between Charles [sic] Donovan, Esq. (The Eminent Phrenologist from London) and the Rev. Brewin Grant, held in the new Odd Fellows Hall, Birmingham Dec. 10-19, 1849 ... with notes and appendix by Rev. Brewin Grant (1849 & 1850).

Back to home page

© John van Wyhe 1999-2011. Materials on this website may not be reproduced without permission except for use in teaching or non-published presentations, papers/theses.