George Combe, 1836
by Daniel Macnee
|Born||21 October 1788
|Died||14 August 1858
George Combe (21 October 1788 – 14 August 1858) was the leader of – and the spokesman for – the phrenological movement for more than twenty years. He founded the Edinburgh Phrenological Society in 1820 and was the author of the highly influential The Constitution of Man (1828). Combe was trained in Scots law and had an Edinburgh solicitor's practice. In his later years, after an emotionally and financially happy marriage, Combe devoted himself to international travel in the promotion of phrenology.
George Combe was born in Edinburgh, the son of a prosperous brewer, and the elder brother of Andrew Combe. After attending the High School of Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh, Combe entered a lawyer's office in 1804; and, in 1812, he began his own practice.
The Phrenological Society
In 1815, the Edinburgh Review contained an article on the system of "craniology" of Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, which was denounced as "a piece of thorough quackery from beginning to end." When Spurzheim came to Edinburgh in 1816, Combe was invited to a friend's house where he watched Spurzheim dissect a human brain. Impressed by this demonstration, he attended the second series of Spurzheim's lectures. Investigating the subject for himself, he became satisfied that the fundamental principles of phrenology were true—namely
|“||that the brain is the organ of mind; that the brain is an aggregate of several parts, each subserving a distinct mental faculty; and that the size of the cerebral organ is, caeteris paribus, an index of power or energy of function.||”|
In 1820, Combe helped to found the Phrenological Society of Edinburgh, which in 1823 began to publish a Phrenological Journal. Through his lectures and writings, Combe attracted public attention to phrenology on Continental Europe and the United States, as well as in his native United Kingdom.
Debate with Hamilton
Combe began to lecture at Edinburgh in 1822, and published a manual called Elements of Phrenology in June 1824. Converts came in, new societies sprang up, and controversies began. A second edition of the Elements, 1825, was attacked by Francis Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review for September 1825. Combe replied in a pamphlet and in the journal. Sir William Hamilton delivered addresses to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1826 and 1827 attacking the phrenologists. A sharp controversy followed, including challenges to public disputes and mutual charges of misrepresentation, in which Spurzheim took part. The correspondence was published in the fourth and fifth volumes of the Phrenological Journal.
In 1836, Combe stood for the chair of Logic at Edinburgh, against two other candidates, Sir William Hamilton and Isaac Taylor; Hamilton won with 18 votes, against 14 for Taylor. In 1838 Combe visited the United States and studied the treatment of criminals there. He initiated a programme of public education about chemistry, physiology, history and moral philosophy.
Combe sought to improve the provision of public education and he advocated a national system of non-sectarian education. He helped set up a school in Edinburgh run on the principles of William Ellis, and did some teaching there himself on phrenology and physiology. It was prompted by the London "Birkbeck School" opened on 17 July 1848. Combe was a significant figure in his view that the state should be involved with the educational system. His ideas were supported by William Jolly, an inspector of schools, and noted by Frank Pierrepont Graves.
Combe was seriously concerned about prison reform; and, with his assistant William A. F. Browne, he opened a debate about the introduction of the humane treatment of psychiatric disorders into publicly funded asylums.
In 1842, Combe delivered a course of twenty-two lectures on phrenology in the Ruprecht Karl University of Heidelberg, and he travelled much in Europe, inquiring into the management of schools, prisons and asylums.
Combe was revising the ninth edition of the Constitution of Man when he died at Moor Park, Farnham in August 1858. He is buried in the Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh against the north wall of the original section.
In 1817 his first essay on phrenology was published in The Scots Magazine; and a series of papers on the same subject appeared soon afterwards in the Literary and Statistical Magazine; these were collected and published in 1819 in book form as Essays on Phrenology, which in later editions became A System of Phrenology.
Combe's most popular work, The Constitution of Man, was published in 1828, and he was widely denounced as a materialist and atheist. In this book, Combe wrote: "Mental qualities are determined by the size, form and constitution of the brain; and these are transmitted by hereditary descent".
In 1840 he published his Moral Philosophy, and in the following year his Notes on the United States of North America.
The culmination of Combe's autobiographical philosophy is contained in "On the Relation between Science and Religion", first publicly issued in 1857.
Combe moved into the economic arena with his pamphlet on The Currency Question (1858). A more fully elaborated phrenological approach to political economy was later set out by William Ballantyne Hodgson.
In 1833, Combe married Cecilia Siddons, a daughter of the actress Sarah Siddons, and sister of Henry Siddons, the author of the Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action (1807). She brought him a fortune, as well as a happy – though childless – marriage (preceded by a phrenological check for compatibility). A few years later, he retired from work as a lawyer, in comfortable circumstances.
He is buried in Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh. His resting place is marked by a rather flamboyant headstone. Cecilia Siddons is buried with him.
- Essays on Phrenology, or an Inquiry into the Principles and Utility of the System of Drs Gall and Spurzheim, and into the Objections Made against It, Edinburgh: Bell & Bradfute, 1819
- On the Functions of the Cerebellum by Drs. Gall, Vimont, Broussais, Roget, Rudolphi, Prichard, Tiedemann (bound with) Also Answers to the Objections Urged Against Phrenology, with Dr. A. Combe, Edinburgh, MacLachlan & Stewart, 1838
- Phrenology Applied to Painting and Sculpture, London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1855
- Combe, George. (1828). The Constitution of Man Considered in Relation to External Objects. J. Anderson jun. (reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2009; ISBN 978-1-108-00413-8)
- Combe, George. (1830). A System of Phrenology Edinburgh: J Anderson. Full Text Available at archive.org
- Combe, George. (1857). On the Relation Between Science and Religion. Maclachlan and Stewart (reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2009; ISBN 978-1-108-00451-0)
- Wright, Peter (August 2005). "George Combe—phrenologist, philosopher, psychologist (1788–1858)". Cortex; a journal devoted to the study of the nervous system and behaviour 41 (4): 447–51. doi:10.1016/s0010-9452(08)70185-0. PMID 16042021.
- Kaufman, M H (October 1995). "Circumstances surrounding the examination of the skull and brain of George Combe (1788–1858) advocate of phrenology". Proceedings of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh 25 (4): 663–74. PMID 11608956.
- Sait, J E (1976). "The Combe collection in the National Library of Scotland". The bibliotheck 8 (1–2): 53–4. PMID 11634646.
- De Giustino, D (1972). "Reforming the commonwealth of thieves: British phrenologists and Australia". Victorian studies 15: 439–61. PMID 11678098.
- Walsh, A A (July 1971). "George Combe: a portrait of a heretofore generally unknown behaviorist". Journal of the history of the behavioural sciences 7 (3): 269–78. doi:10.1002/1520-6696(197107)7:3<269::AID-JHBS2300070305>3.0.CO;2-6. PMID 11609418.
- Stephen 1887.
- "Taylor, Isaac (1787-1865)". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
- "Williams, William Mattieu". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Stephen (1887). "Combe, George". In Stephen, Leslie. Dictionary of National Biography 11. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 427–429.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Cousin, John William (1910). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: J. M. Dent & Sons. Wikisource
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- NNDB Biography
- Articles on Phrenological practice by George Combe, Andrew Combe, and other early Phrenologists.