‘The doctrines of phrenology shall spread over Britain’
George Combe and the rise of British phrenology
in The dome of thought
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The chapter begins by reappraising the encounter which conventionally forms the climax of Spurzheim’s British tour – a demonstration of anatomy which Spurzheim made in Edinburgh – the content of which apparently prompted a bad-tempered verbal exchange between Spurzheim and Gordon. Greatly mythologised by proponents of phrenology, the actual details of this encounter are revealed through access to an unreprinted contemporary newspaper account published in England rather than Scotland. The subsequent reception of Spurzheim by the Edinburgh intelligentsia is then contemplated, before the chapter moves to consider the impact of Spurzheim’s teaching and writing upon George Combe, the Scottish lawyer who would become the central figure in a specifically British incarnation of the pseudoscience. A major consequence of Spurzheim’s visit was the establishment of the first British phrenological society in Edinburgh in 1820: the history, foundation, rules and activities of that influential body are discussed at length, and its influence upon a substantial network of local societies across the United Kingdom is demonstrated through insights into the meetings they organised and the museums they maintained. The activities of the Phrenological Society of London, founded in 1822, are also discussed, and in particular the examination which its members made of the crania of convicted criminals. The chapter closes by intimating the background to the slow decline of the phrenological societies and anticipates the gradual integration of phrenology into mesmerism under the particular influence of the London physician and teacher of medicine, John Elliotson.

The dome of thought

Phrenology and the nineteenth-century popular imagination

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