In Self-Culture and the Perfection of Character ( 1847 ), the American phrenologist, Orson Fowler, offered phrenology as a remedy for those who ‘are daily and earnestly inquiring –“How can I REMEDY my defects? By what MEANS can I increase my deficient organs, and diminish or regulate those that are too large? … How can I make my children better?”’
Orson and his brother, Lorenzo, founded a phrenological and publishing empire in mid-nineteenth-century America that revitalised and popularised
Historians of phrenology customarily consider the much-anticipated confrontation of the Reviewer by the Reviewed as a signal, if not climactic, event in the history of the pseudoscience. Traditionally, the scene is set with intimations that Gordon's polemic in the Edinburgh Review had thoroughly prejudiced the intelligent burghers of that city against Spurzheim's earnest claims, and that the German was spurned at the very door of the Scottish doctor when he politely
This essay addresses the socio-cultural potential of phreno-mesmerism in the mid-nineteenth century and how its good intentions were frustrated by its uncanny discourse. Supporters of phreno-mesmerisms social agency dreamed that the physiological make-up of future generations could be determined by engineering sexual partnerships. But the more earnestly the new hybrid science was advanced as a tool of social change, the more the discourse of phreno-magnetism proved unwieldy. In effect, the discourse represents a double-bind, intertwining sex and gender, essentialism and constructionism, science and the occult, materialism and Gothic. The article focuses of Elliotson‘s enthusiasm for uniting phrenology and mesmerism in his notorious Letter On Mesmeric Phrenology and Materialism (1843).
Late eighteenth-century science aimed to render the body transparent; in contrast, gothic novels of the same period often represented the body as an untrustworthy source of information about the self. In these novels, characters may often be reduced to a bodily or facial map, which may give clues as to personal character, motivation and intention. Yet the practice of reading the body – as practiced in sciences such as physiognomy, phrenology or criminology – also comes under intense interrogation. Through disastrous mis-readings, misdiagnoses and misidentifications, gothic novelists demonstrate how conflating body and self is deeply threatening to ideas of ‘unique’ personhood.
The narrator of ‘The Man of the Crowd’ offers a critical means of analysing the entire text by asserting that, had Retzsch beheld the old man, he would have preferred its ‘incarnation of the fiend’ to his own. Exploring Retzschs contemporary reputation highlights his provision of Percy Shelley, amongst others, with poetic inspiration. His works offered authors a kind of translation from written to visual imagery, and developed a reputation of fashionable sophistication. The reference within ‘The Man of the Crowd’ thus locates the narrator in relation to contemporary bourgeois culture. Poe‘s awareness of Retzschs Outlines far preceded ‘The Man of the Crowd’; he contributed to critical discussion of the artist by contesting the view that ‘the chief merit of a picture is its truth’. Delighting in Retzschs omission of colour, Poe discovered in the Outlines a minimalist model for his own writing style. Developing this into the sharp contrasts between light and darkness apparent in the crowd, he achieved a pictorial quality much commented on by Poe enthusiasts, and developed an aesthetic theory combining vivid symbolism with stark detail. A. W. Schlegel observed similar, predecessor techniques in the work of John Flaxman. In a world enthused with phrenology, Retzschs influence on Poe is explored in the schisms between external and internal characteristics. Subtly undermining the theory that a figures outline gives a genuine impression of what is within, Poe finally alights on the thimblerigger as the pinnacle of the theme. The shells structure the process by which observers and readers utilise what they see in order to imagine what is hidden.
The dome of thought examines how phrenology and phrenologists were represented in British daily newspapers, popular magazines and serious journals from the opening of the nineteenth century to its conclusion, before tracing the residual influence of the pseudoscience across the twentieth century and, surprisingly, into the second decade of the twenty-first century. The book opens with a consideration of how phrenology was deployed to explain literary celebrity in the Victorian period with particular attention being directed to the interpretation of the skulls of William Shakespeare and Robert Burns. The book then continues by recalling the manner in which the doctrine of phrenology was introduced to British culture in the early nineteenth century, and the manner in which the Continental activities of Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Gasper Spurzheim were reported. The lecture tour of Britain and Ireland subsequently undertaken by Spurzheim is discussed, and the book reassess the controversy which surrounded his encounter with the Scottish medical establishment in 1816. Spurzheim’s influence upon George Combe, the Scottish lawyer who was the popular face of British phrenology for much of the century, is then considered, as is the interface of phrenological thought with mesmerism in the work of John Elliotson. The final chapter of the book surveys the declining years of speculative and theoretical phrenology and its transformation into a primarily commercial activity under the particular influence of the American Fowler brothers. The conclusion surveys phrenology in the twentieth century, and its resurgence in political satires directed against Donald Trump.
Mesmerism, celebrity practitioners and the schism of 1842–3
To the Editor of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal
S ir , – It has been to me a matter of some surprise that the strenuous supporters of Phrenology, who have been equally strenuous opposers of Mesmerism, should witness in silence that strange amalgamation of the two sciences, which is now being exhibited under the title of Phreno-Magnetism.
Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (1 November 1843
characters by the head and features, and even blindfolded by touching the hand.
Evening News , Portsmouth (5 June 1900)
The Science Museum, London, holds many tangible artefacts connected with the practice and history of phrenology, in an expansive collection which juxtaposes durable objects, such as ceramic busts and cranial measuring callipers, with the fragile ephemera of
Coda: The phrenology of Donald J. Trump
The ubiquitous bust with its demarcated organs ought rightly to be considered as the most durable monument of the phrenological movement, even where its former significance as a diagnostic or prognostic tool remains but a vague context in the mind of its twenty-first-century possessor. The Fowler bust – the most frequently reproduced of the genre – may today be easily obtained as a cheap reproduction in a variety of sizes, these artefacts even going so far as to
low-browed man never portrayed all the workings, passions, and foibles of our natures, nor possessed such a brilliant imagination as our immortal bard’.
The signifying forehead, though, is not the unique property of the physiognomist, amateur or professional. The brow's positioning at the junction of face and scalp facilitates its parallel signification in the rather more elaborate pseudoscience of phrenology. The two pseudosciences are, at times, almost congruent not merely in terms of their specific