Phrenology Essay

Frequently characterized as a pseudoscientific fad in which a person’s character was read from the shape of the head, during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, phrenology exercised a wide and important influence as a physiological theory of the mind with profound implications for the regulation of behavior. Aligned with liberal Christian values and Whig political ideals, it drew upon knowledge of the innate structure and development of the brain to justify social reforms that would perfect individuals and help engineer a rationally ordered state.

Every atom of modern life came under the phrenologist’s moral gaze: diet, the choice of a spouse, the organization of industrial labor, the reformation of the criminal, and the treatment of the insane had to be guided by the principles God purportedly used to fashion human nature. Most importantly, phrenologists sought to advance society through education. Champions of public schooling, they argued for developmentally appropriate training to elevate the moral and intellectual character of the population and a scientific curriculum to teach the working poor the basic principles of the middle-class worldview.

The fundamental doctrines of phrenology were developed in the 1790s by the German physician Franz-Joseph Gall. Based upon a comparative analysis of animal behavior and neural anatomy, Gall claimed that mental functions were the product of some twenty-seven discrete organs (later phrenologists added more) housed in various regions of the brain; the larger the cerebral mass, the more powerful its operation. Because the skull—thin and plastic, especially in childhood—adapted to the contours of the brain, Gall also maintained that the shape of the cranium served as a map of the mental landscape below. Accepting that each organ could be strengthened by exercise, Gall nonetheless retained a conservative view of human nature that pictured the majority of men and women driven to vice by their inner desires.

In contrast, his one-time assistant, Johan Gasper Spurzheim, developed a more liberal reading of God’s handiwork. Systemizing the brain around bourgeois values, Spurzheim described the ideal mind as a harmonious order of positive intellectual, moral, and passionate traits. Wickedness and other moral ills resulted from an imbalance caused by over or underdeveloped faculties, he thought, and the key to individual and social progress thus lay with the proper government of the faculties through scientifically grounded pedagogic practices. Utilizing the technique of moral treatment pioneered by Philip Pinel for the care of the insane, Spurzheim explained how appropriate behavioral therapy could temper excited organs and bring aberrant drives under control. This linking of the moral and the physical helped justify medical authority over the mad and had important implications for penal reform. Applied to schooling and other social practices, it suggested a host of practical methods— through the management of base propensities, moral sentiments, and rational powers—that would normalize the mind in accord with middle-class expectations.

While Spurzheim was cautious about the limits of improvement—retaining a strong belief in the hereditary basis of criminality, degeneracy, and intelligence— his Scottish follower, George Combe, believed that learned inherited traits could gradually advance the physiological condition of the masses. Promoting infant and elementary schooling, he joined with James Simpson in the 1830s movement for a national system of public education. They described the playground as a moral theater for regulating desires, presented the object lesson as an instrument for training the knowing faculties, constructed a scientific curriculum to teach children about the world, and, opposing classical learning and religious indoctrination, offered natural theology as the best evidence for God and the duties of Christian life. Sectarian dogma and the Bible, they insisted, had to be restricted to the home and the church. Although this crusade was frustrated by the Anglican establishment, Combe’s ideas did have a powerful impact the United States thanks to the efforts of his American disciples, Horace Mann and Samuel Gridley Howe.

Mann was introduced to phrenology in the early 1830s when, as a member of the Massachusetts General Court, he oversaw the establishment of Worcester Asylum, America’s first public hospital for the insane. Reading Combe’s Constitution of Man in 1837 persuaded him to accept the position of secretary to the newly appointed Board of Education and apply the same principles of moral management to improvement of society. When Combe visited the United States the following year, he discovered Mann justifying sweeping changes in public schooling in accord with the basic principles of phrenology. Mann’s rejection of corporal punishment for moral suasion; his advocacy of the object lesson and scientific studies; his campaign to establish normal schools, school libraries, and nonsectarian textbooks; and his vision of a centralized body to oversee educational reform all flowed from Combe’s and Simpson’s teachings.

Howe pushed an equally ambitious program in the field of special education. Director of the Perkins School for the Blind, he gained international fame as the teacher of the deaf-blind pupil Laura Bridgman. Laura’s remarkable education, designed to prove the truth of phrenology and the power of the new pedagogy, did much to recommend Mann’s common school initiatives. Equally competing was Howe’s work with the severely learning disabled at the New England School for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Youth. Not simply an exercise in humanitarianism, Howe investigated the causes of idiocy (as it was then known) in order to justify physiologically grounded welfare policies. Insisting that all diseases resulted from breaking God’s moral laws (such as early or inappropriate marriages), he advocated protoeugenic polices to control social dependents and degenerates. Fearful of propagating negative traits, he called for the deinstitutionalization of the disabled; and, convinced that only oral and written communication could train the higher powers of the mind, notoriously opposed the sign language of the deaf.


  1. Cooter, R. (1984). The cultural meaning of popular science: Phrenology and the organization of consent in nineteenth century Britain. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Gitter, E. (2001). The imprisoned guest: Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, the original deaf-blind girl. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
  3. Tomlinson, S. (2005). Head masters: Phrenology, secular education, and nineteenth century social thought. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

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