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

by John van Wyhe

Ridiculing Phrenology: "this persecuted science"

"Fool and Phrenologist are terms nearly synonymous" Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 1823.

"The science has met with words enough to have overthrown the argumentative powers of any Irish barrister." 'Cranioscopophilus' in The Lancet, 1827.

Phrenology: "The science of picking the pocket through the scalp. It consists in locating and exploiting the organ that one is a dupe with." Ambrose Bierce

From Spurzheim's arrival in Britain in 1814, phrenology was, and to this day still is, ridiculed for the presumptuousness of its claims and the counter-intuitiveness of looking to bumps and indentations on the head to reveal the propensities and abilities of the individual. J.G. Spurzheim

The Edinburgh anatomist John Gordon poured unprecedented scorn and ridicule on Spurzheim's first book from the pages of the respected Edinburgh Review: Gall and Spurzheim, Gordon spat, have shown "so impudent a contempt for the opinions and labours of others, are so utterly destitute of every qualification necessary for the conduct of a philosophical investigation.... for there is nothing sufficiently certain in nature, which these gentlemen will not call in question, if it be hostile to their views.... The writings of Drs Gall and Spurzheim, have not added one fact to the stock of our knowledge.... [phrenology is] "a piece of thorough quackery from beginning to end". This was only the beginning.

Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine ran an article in 1821 to lampoon the phrenologists' claim that "the mind" has a greater connection to the brain than previously thought. A schoolmaster was said to have examined the bottoms of 800 school boys and found the application of the taws (a leather whip) has a great effect on "stimulating their intellectual powers" and hence "the bottom is more intimately connected with the mind than preceding investigators have supposed."

In The Craniad; or Spurzheim illustrated. A Poem in two parts. (Edinburgh, 1817), readers could laugh at the pretensions of the phrenologist Spurzheim:


Frontispiece to George Cruikshank's Phrenological Illustrations, or an Artist's View of the Craniological System of Doctors Gall and Spurzheim. London, 1830 (1st ed. 1826). This was a spoof of phrenology.

...oh Spurzheim!... Or, warmed with Craniologic fame,
Attempt the praise of serious bards to claim;
Be thou our patron saint, great Spurzheim, thou,
And bind with Cypress wreaths the poet's brow."
"Thou learn'd, far-famed geographer of bones
Thine equal dwells not in this globe's five zones!

Thus have we sung, in
craniologic strains,
The marks of character,--the laws of brains;
Thus have we proved what ne'er was proved before,
But which, once proved, can ne'er be doubted more,
That every faculty is born and bred,
And rear'd to full perfection, in the head.
That mind depends on brains we've clearly shown,
For when the brains are out, the mind is flown;
That skulls contain the laws of human life,
Which often are with human laws at strife.

This engraving appeared at the rear of The Craniad. Compare this with Spurzheim's original engraving:
Frontispiece to Spurzheim 1815

Calves' Heads and Brains, or A Phrenological Lecture. 1826

An author in 1838 summed up the feelings of many critics: "Phrenology is a mass of untruth! its physics are false and presumptuous, its metaphysics nonsensical, its ethics a gross ideotic blunder! And yet this system has numerous admirers, and its lecturers often appear in public, exhibiting the ignorance and audacity of the charlatan, in every sentence they utter, and they are generally surrounded by a gaping multitude, of bump-feeling people, eager to gain knowledge of the so-called "science.""

Many anti-phrenologists poked fun at the notion that the brain could be comprised of many organs. Since it was believed by most non-phrenologists that the brain was just as single an organ as the liver or heart, some lampooned the science of phrenology by proposing the study of other organs that might really be many rather than one as had been thought before. One of these humorous suggestions was for a science of "CORDIOLOGY"- so that the heart might also be made of many organs. Even more amusing was Punch's "Stomachology"- a new science which claimed that the stomach was not just a single organ as previously thought!

The much maligned phrenologists themselves, tenaciously insisted that phrenology was "the most important scientific discovery ever made". But none of them could doubt it was a "persecuted science". Analogies with Galileo's persecution by the Inquisition abounded as phrenologists took consolation in their belief that all great new sciences were first scorned and condemned by religious bigots and sceptical critics. Employing this story helped the phrenologists to feel they were members of an elite brotherhood (they were mostly men) of seekers after natural truths- abused by the ignorant and arrogant. Thus phrenologists, by putting a favourable spin on the "tide of ridicule and the abuse against them [which flowed] in an unabated stream" turned their exclusion into a virtue and the science continued through the 1830s and 1840s safely sheltered from serious questions and criticisms which might otherwise have tempered their extreme claims.

Further Reading:

See Anon., 'Introductory Statement', Phrenological Journal, 1823, for the best collection of humorous insults and lampoons of phrenology.

See other extensive and sometimes quite amusing anti-phrenological texts at this site.

See also the delightful fun poked at Spurzheim in the role of "Mr. Cranium" in Thomas Love Peacock's Headlong Hall (1815) one of the first (if not the first) uses of phrenology in an English novel.

A short essay on the significance of ridicule for phrenology is available here.

See also: The Phrenological Organs which contains several charts to compare

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.