Edinburgh Phrenological Society

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The Society's former museum in Edinburgh bears sculpted portraits of prominent figures in the field of phrenology. Enlarge for caption.

The Edinburgh Phrenological Society was established in 1820. The central concept of phrenology was that the brain is the organ of the mind and that human behaviour can be usefully understood in neuropsychological rather than philosophical or religious terms. Phrenologists stressed the modularity of mind. With their distaste for supernatural explanations, the phrenologists acted - in Edinburgh, at least - as the midwives to evolutionary theory. They also inspired a renewed interest in psychiatric disorder and its moral treatment. Founded by the lawyer George Combe and his physician brother Andrew, the Edinburgh Society was the first and foremost phrenological grouping in the Great Britain. More than forty phrenological societies followed in other parts of the British Isles.

Phrenology was claimed to be scientific, but is now regarded as a pseudoscience; its formal procedures did not conform to the usual standards of scientific method. Early Edinburgh phrenologists included the publisher Robert Chambers (1802–1871), author of the proto-Darwinian masterpiece Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844); the astronomer John Pringle Nichol (1804–1859); the botanist and evolutionary thinker Hewett Cottrell Watson (1804–1881); the distinguished asylum reformer William A.F. Browne (1805–1885); and the pioneer of women's education William Ballantyne Hodgson (1815–1880). Charles Darwin, a medical student in Edinburgh in 1825/1826/1827, was much engaged in phrenological discussions at the Plinian Society and returned to Edinburgh in 1838 when formulating his concepts concerning natural selection.


Phrenology emerged from the views of the medical doctor and scientific researcher Franz Joseph Gall in 18th-century Vienna. Gall suggested that facets of the mind corresponded to regions of the brain, and that it was possible to determine character traits by examining the shape of a person's skull. This "craniological" aspect was greatly expanded by his one-time disciple, Johann Spurzheim, who coined the term phrenology and saw it as a means of advancing society by social reform - improving the material conditions of human life.

In 1815, a hostile article by the anatomist John Gordon was published in the Edinburgh Review, calling phrenology a "mixture of gross errors and extravagant absurdities".[1] In response, Spurzheim went to Edinburgh to take part in public debates and to perform brain dissections in public. Whilst he was received politely by the scientific and medical community there, many had anxieties about the philosophical materialism inherent in phrenology.[2] George Combe, a lawyer who had previously been skeptical, became a convert to phrenology after listening to Spurzheim's commentary as he dissected a human brain.

The Society[edit]

George Combe, founder of the society, was a lawyer who devoted his later life to advancing phrenology around the world.

"Mental qualities are determined by the size, form and constitution of the brain and these are transmitted by hereditary descent...." George Combe (1828) The Constitution of Man in relation to External Objects.

"One is tempted to believe phrenologists are right about habitual exercise of the mind altering form of the head, and thus these qualities become hereditary..." Charles Darwin (1838) The M Notebook.

The Edinburgh Phrenological Society was founded on 22 February 1820, by the Combe brothers with the support of the Evangelical minister David Welsh.[3] The society grew rapidly, members publishing articles, giving lectures and defending phrenology from opponents like the philosopher Sir William Hamilton and the editor of the Edinburgh Review, Francis Jeffrey. The hostility of other critics, including Alexander Monro tertius, the lamentable Professor of Anatomy in Edinburgh, actually added to the glamour of phrenological concepts. Some anti-religionists, including the anatomist Robert Knox and the evolutionist Robert Edmond Grant, rejected the unscientific nature of phrenology - and did not embrace its speculative and reformist aspects. The society acquired large numbers of phrenological artefacts, such as marked porcelain heads indicating the location of cerebral organs, and endocranial casts of individuals with unusual personalities. In 1823, Andrew Combe addressed the Royal Medical Society in a debate, arguing that phrenology properly explained the intellectual and moral abilities of mankind. Both sides claimed victory after the lengthy debate, but the Medical Society refused to publish an account of it,[4] prompting the Phrenological Society to establish its own journal,The Phrenological Journal and Miscellany, in 1824 - it was later renamed Phrenological Journal and Magazine of Moral Science.[5]

In the mid-1820s, a split emerged between the Christian phrenologists and Combe's closer associates. Matters came to a head when Combe and his supporters successfully passed a motion banning the discussion of theology in the society, effectively silencing their critics. This prompted the evangelical members, including David Welsh, to leave.[6]

In December 1826, the atheistic phrenologist William A.F. Browne caused a sensation at the Plinian Society with an attack on the recently republished theories of Charles Bell concerning the expression of the human emotions. Bell held that human anatomy uniquely allowed the expression of the human moral self while Browne argued that there were no absolute distinctions between human and animal anatomy. Charles Darwin was there to listen. On 27 March 1827, Browne advanced phrenological theories concerning the human mind in terms of the Lamarckist evolution of the brain. This attracted the opposition of almost all members of the Plinian Society - and, once again, the 18-year-old Charles Darwin observed the ensuing outrage.[7] In his private notebooks, including the M Notebook written ten years later, Darwin made some rather casual and complimentary references to the views of the phrenologists.

In 1828, George Combe published his international bestseller The Constitution of Man. At the end of that year, the Burke and Hare murders scandalized the citizens of Edinburgh, and on 29 January 1829, the phrenologists were permitted to examine Burke's skull following his execution and subsequent public dissection by Professor Monro. Face masks of William Burke and William Hare form part of the Edinburgh phrenology collection.

In 1831, Andrew Combe published his Observations on Mental Derangement. Shortly after this, Combe applied for the post of Physician Superintendent at the Montrose Royal Asylum; but on receiving a request for a testimonial for William A.F. Browne, he withdrew his application and endorsed his former pupil in the warmest personal terms. Browne took up the position in 1834.

Later influence of phrenological thought[edit]

"You interest me very much Mr Holmes. I had hardly expected so dolicocephalic a skull or such well marked supra-orbital development....A cast of your skull, sir, until the original is available, would be an ornament to any anthropological museum...." Arthur Conan Doyle (1902) The Hound Of The Baskervilles.

The Ramsay Henderson Trust: The phrenologists were given a financial boost by the death of a wealthy supporter - William Ramsay Henderson - in 1832; he left a large bequest to the Edinburgh Society to promote phrenology as it saw fit. The Ramsay Henderson Trust enabled the phrenologists to publish a cheap version of The Constitution of Man, which went on to become one of the best selling books of the 19th Century.[8] However, despite the widespread interest in phrenology in the 1820s and 1830s, the Phrenological Journal always struggled to make a profit.

W.A.F. Browne: In 1832–1834, William A.F. Browne published a paper in The Phrenological Journal in three serialised episodes On Morbid Manifestations of the Organ of Language, as connected with Insanity, relating mental disorder to a disturbance in the neurological organization of language. Browne married Magdelene Balfour in 1834 and went on to a distinguished career as an asylum doctor. His 1837 publication What Asylums Were, Are and Ought To Be (dedicated to Andrew Combe) had an international impact. He was appointed Superintendent of the Crichton Royal Institution in Dumfries in 1838, and elected President of the Medico-Psychological Association in 1866. Towards the end of his career, Browne returned to the relationships of language, psychosis and brain injury in his 1872 paper Impairment of Language, the Result of Cerebral Disease published in the West Riding Lunatic Asylum Medical Reports, edited by his son James Crichton-Browne. At this time, Crichton-Browne was concluding a lengthy correspondence with Charles Darwin during the preparation and publication of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

John Pringle Nichol: Nichol was appointed Regius Professor of Astronomy in Glasgow University in 1836, and attained fame and distinction as an outstanding lecturer - his book The Architecture of the Heavens (1837) achieved legendary status as a classic of popular science. In the 1840s, Nichol became addicted to medicinal opiates and sought hydropathic treatment, recording his successful cure in his autobiographical correspondence, Memorials from Ben Rhydding.

Hewett Watson: In 1836, Hewett Cottrell Watson published a paper in The Phrenological Journal entitled What Is The Use Of The Double Brain ? in which he speculated on the differential development of the two human cerebral hemispheres. This theme of cerebral asymmetry was picked up rather casually by the London society physician Sir Henry Holland in 1840, and then much more extensively by the eccentric Brighton practitioner Arthur Ladbroke Wigan in his treatise On the Duality of Mind (1844). It did not achieve scientific status until Paul Broca, encouraged by the French phrenologist/physician Jean-Baptiste Bouillaud, published his research into the speech centres of the brain in 1861. In 1889, Henry Maudsley published (in the philosophical journal Mind) a searching review of this topic entitled The Double Brain.[9]

Like Robert Chambers, Watson later turned his energies to the question of the transmutation of species, and, having bought the Phrenological Journal with the proceeds of a large inheritance, appointed himself its editor in 1837. Watson was unusual amongst phrenologists in explicitly disavowing phrenological ideas in later life. In the 1850s, Watson conducted an extensive correspondence with Charles Darwin concerning the geographical distribution of British plant species and Darwin made generous acknowledgement of Watson's scientific contributions in On The Origin of Species.

Charles Darwin: In June 1838 (around the time of Queen Victoria's coronation), after months of ill health, Charles Darwin revisited Edinburgh and his undergraduate haunts some eleven years after his hurried departure. Characteristically, Darwin recorded many of his psychological speculations on this trip in his M Notebook. At the same time, he was teasing out the details of his theory of natural selection and was in some emotional conflict, entertaining the possibility of marriage to his devoutly Christian cousin, Emma Wedgwood. Interestingly, it was at this time that he committed his "gigantic blunder" concerning the parallel roads of Glen Roy. Darwin seems to have hit on the essence of natural selection in September 1838, and on 21 September he recorded a vivid and disturbing dream in which he was involved in a public execution at which the corpse came to life and claimed to have died as a hero. He married his cousin on 29 January 1839.

Darwin's marriage was a success, and the domestic security with which he was provided enabled him to continue his scientific researches, culminating in the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859.

Robert Chambers: In 1844, Robert Chambers completed the dictation of his Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation to his wife, Anne Kirkwood, as he recuperated from depression at his holiday home in St Andrews. The composition of Vestiges may have served a therapeutic purpose. Chambers had been an enthusiastic phrenologist in Edinburgh in the 1830s, and the anonymously authored Vestiges became an international bestseller and a powerful public influence, subsequent to Combe's Constitution of Man (1828), and anticipating the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859. In a strange parallel to Robert and Anne Chambers, Prince Albert read the Vestiges aloud to Queen Victoria over several days in 1845. Chambers died in St Andrews in 1871 and is buried in the grounds of its ruined cathedral.

Later Developments: Interest in phrenology declined in Edinburgh in the 1840s, though worldwide interest remained high, with George Combe's The Constitution of Man being much in demand. Combe devoted his later years to international travel and lectures on phrenology - he died in Farnham in Surrey in 1858 while receiving hydrotherapy treatment and preparing the ninth edition of The Constitution of Man. In 1855, Thomas Laycock (1812–1876) was appointed to the Chair of Medicine in Edinburgh University - Laycock was friendly with William A.F. Browne and, in 1860, he published his Mind and Brain, an extended essay on the neurological foundations of psychological life.

The last recorded meeting of the society took place in 1870.[10] A number of the phrenologists' concerns drifted into the related fields of anthropometry, psychiatry and criminology, and also into degeneration theory as set out by Benedict Morel (1809–1873) and Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909).[11]The French pioneer of social psychology, Gustave le Bon (1841–1931), began his career with the invention of a "cephalometer" - to provide detailed estimates of cranial capacity and variation. In 1885, the German medical scientist Rudolf Virchow launched a large-scale craniometric investigation of supposed racial stereotypes with comprehensively negative results for the advocates of racial science.

Together with mesmerism, phrenology exerted an extraordinary influence on the Victorian literary imagination in the later nineteenth century, especially in the fin-de-siècle aesthetic, including the work of George du Maurier, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells and comparable to the later cultural influences of spiritualism and psychoanalysis.

On 29 February 1924, Sir James Crichton-Browne (the son of William A.F. Browne) delivered the Ramsay Henderson Bequest Lecture entitled The Story of the Brain in which he recorded a generous appreciation of the role of the Edinburgh phrenologists in the later development of neurology and neuropsychiatry. However, Crichton-Browne did not remark on his father having joined the Society a century earlier - almost to the day. The Ramsay Henderson Trust was wound up in 2012. Many of the society's phrenological artefacts survive today, having passed to Edinburgh University's Department of Anatomy under the guiding hand of Professor Matthew Kaufman.

Phrenology has enjoyed a curious afterlife as a case-study in the history and sociology of scientific knowledge (science studies), as an example of a discarded body of scientific thought.


  1. ^ Gieryn, Thomas F, (1999) Cultural Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the Line University of Chicago Press, pp 115, 268
  2. ^ Kaufman Matthew H. (2005) Edinburgh Phrenological Society: A History Edinburgh: William Ramsay Henderson Trust
  3. ^ Van Whye, John (2004) Phrenology and the Origins of Victorian Scientific Naturalism, Ashgate Publishing Limited
  4. ^ Kaufman, Matthew H. "The Edinburgh phrenological debate of 1823 held in the Royal Medical Society", Journal of Neurolinguistics 11.4, (October 1998:377-389).
  5. ^ Egerton, Frank N. (2003) Hewett Cottrell Watson: Victorian Plant Ecologist and Evolutionist, London: Ashgate Publishing, 2003
  6. ^ Kaufman, Matthew H. Edinburgh Phrenological Society: A History, page 93
  7. ^ Walmsley, Tom (1993) "Psychiatry in Descent: Darwin and the Brownes" Psychiatric Bulletin, 17, 748 - 751
  8. ^ Kaufman, Matthew H. Edinburgh Phrenological Society: A History
  9. ^ Harrington, Anne (1987) Medicine, Mind, and the Double Brain: a study in nineteenth century thought Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press
  10. ^ Kaufman, Matthew H. Edinburgh Phrenological Society: A History, page 86
  11. ^ Pick, Daniel (1987) Faces of Degeneration: a European disorder, c. 1848 – c. 1918 Cambridge University Press

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