Boston Phrenological Society

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Boston Phrenological Society
Portrait of Spurzheim by Alvan Fisher (Harvard Medical School)
Formation 17 November 1832 (1832-11-17)
Founder Nahum Capen
Purpose "For the purpose of investigating the principles of Phrenology, and to ascertain the bearings of the science upon the physical, moral and intellectual condition of man."
Membership (1835)
Official language
Key people
Rev. John Pierpont, William B. Fowle, J. F. Flagg MD
Main organ
The Annals of Phrenology

The Boston Phrenological Society was formed in 1832 upon the death of a prominent continental phrenologist, Johann Gaspar Spurzheim. Spurzheim was an anatomist and a former pupil of Franz Josef Gall.[1] Spurzheim's brief tour and death popularized phrenology in the United States outside of its controversial place in medical lecture halls,[2] and into the sphere of social reformers and ministers.[3] The Society's formation launched the phrenology movement in the United States.[4] The Boston Phrenological Society was founded by phrenology adherent Nahum Capen[5] on the day of Spurzheim's funeral, November 17, 1832.[2]:6 [4]:X

The Society was founded, wrote Capen, "for the purpose of investigating the principles of Phrenology, and to ascertain the bearings of the science upon the physical, moral and intellectual condition of man." p 140[6] Its first meeting, December 31, 1832, was held on Spurzheim's birthday. (same pg) Ninety members were in attendance. Society officers included: Nahum Capen, Rev. John Pierpont, William B. Fowle, J. F. Flagg MD, John Flint MD, Jonathan Barber, J.G. Stevenson and S.G. Howe.[7]:507[8] In 1835, the society reported having 127 members.[9] At the 1839 anniversary meeting of the Society, George Combe delivered a talk in which he described the inactivity of the society, and invited members to concentrate on the teaching of phrenology to children, to develop their sense of Christian morality through an awareness of the connection between the mind and body[10]

The Annals of Phrenology[edit]

The Boston Phrenological Society commenced publishing a quarterly journal, The Annals of Phrenology in 1833.[11] The editor, Rev. Nahum Capen, credited Spurzheim's visit to America as the inspiration for the journal. The editors hoped to inspire the rise of American phrenologist practitioners to rival those of Europe.[12] The articles of the Annals contained detailed rebuttals to skeptics of phrenology (494), detailing the Society's disagreement with articles in such journals as the Christian Examiner and the New England Magazine. Through cases[12] [1] and personal anecdotes,[13] Society writers defended the relevance of phrenology to social welfare and mission work, and discussed its harmony with Christianity.[14] The journal also published reprints of contemporary European phrenology literature[15] and phrenology news.[16]

In 1838, The Boston Phrenological Society published a monograph tribute to Spurzheim.[17]

The Collection of the Boston Phrenological Society[edit]

The Society grew its collection of busts, casts, skulls and drawings, soliciting readers through the Annals (p 528 annals). By 1835, the Society reported that it had amassed nearly 500 specimens.(511) A catalogue of the holdings of the collection was printed privately in 1835.[18] The collection contains plaster head-casts, masks, and skulls of well-known individuals. Busts and casts of artists, politicians were presented beside those of what Warren described as "degenerates and celebrated criminals."[2]:1

Transfer of Collection to the Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard Medical School[edit]

Dr J. Mason Warren acquired ownership the Society's collection of casts and skull specimens in 1847, for the Boston Medical Society, and Harvard Medical School, at the price of $150, paid to the Society treasurer.[2]:8,9 Upon purchase of the collection, Dr. Warren wrote that he remained circumspect about phrenology, but maintained that it prefigured more sophisticated study of brain anatomy.[2]:8 When transferred to Warren, the collection of more than 550 specimens, including 25 skulls (p 9) was housed in the Mastodon Rooms of Harvard Medical School.[2]:9 Frederick Coombs, a lecturer and Society member, noted in the Annals that even after sale of the collection, members of the Boston Phrenological Society were permitted loan of the specimens for lectures to the public. Though the collection now belonged to The Boston Medical Society at Harvard, the Medical School "will not be accused of any partiality for the science [of phrenology]."[19]

Home in Warren Anatomical Museum[edit]

Notable specimens[edit]

Human skulls[edit]

  1. Spurzheim's skull, a lock of hair, his heart and brain were also part of the collection.[2]:6
  2. Dr. Robertson of Paris, Spurzheim's pupil and friend, willed that upon his death, his skull be prepared and placed forever beside his master's skull.[20]:96

The two skulls resided in the fireproof building of the Mastodon Museum.[2]:6 Upon the 1880 demolition of that building, they were moved to the Administrative Building.

While not on display, the collection could be viewed by anyone who "appl[ied] to the janitor of Harvard Medical School."[20]:96



  1. ^ Spurzheim, J. G. (1833). Phrenology, in connexion with the study of physiognomy: illustration of characters. Boston: Marsh, Capen & Lyon. 60330190R (National Library of Medicine LocatorPlus ID). Retrieved November 2, 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Warren, John Collins (1921). The collection of the Boston Phrenological Society -- A retrospect. New York: P.B.Hoeber. OCLC 82300551. 
  3. ^ Caldwell, Charles (October 1833). "Phrenology Vindicated". Annals of Phrenology. 1: 34; 93. 
  4. ^ a b Yakolev, Paul (October 1958). "The "Crowbar Skull" and the Mementoes of "Phrenological Hours"". Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin. Harvard Medical Alumni Association. 33 (1): 19–24. 92644723 (Lccn). Retrieved November 2, 2013. 
  5. ^ "Dorchester Atheneum". 
  6. ^ Spurzheim, J. G., Capen, N., & Stanton A. Friedberg, M.D. (1833). Phrenology in connexion with the study of physiognomy: Illustration of characters, with thirty-five plates. Boston: Marsh, Capen & Lyon
  7. ^ Catalogue of the Library, Boston Society of Natural History, Vol 1, 1837.
  8. ^ "An address delivered before the Boston Phrenological Society, Dec. 31, 1832". Archived from the original on November 3, 2013. Retrieved October 22, 2013. 
  9. ^ (511) The Phrenological Journal and Miscellany, Volume 10
  10. ^ p 234, The Phrenological Journal and Science of Health: Incorporated with the Phrenological Magazine, Volume 2, fowler and wells
  11. ^ "Annals of phrenology. - NLM Catalog - NCBI". 2013-03-25. Retrieved 2013-11-01. 
  12. ^ a b "Catalog Record: Annals of phrenology - Hathi Trust Digital Library". 
  13. ^ (vol 1
  14. ^ The Phrenological Journal and Miscellany p. 235
  15. ^ (vol 2)
  16. ^ (509)
  17. ^ Reminiscences of Dr. Spurzheim and George Combe: And a Review of the Science of Phrenology, from the Period of Its Discovery by Dr. Gall, to the Time of the Visit of George Combe to the United States
  18. ^ "A catalogue of phrenological specimens, belonging to the Boston Phrenological Society". Retrieved 2013-11-01. 
  19. ^ Coombs, Frederick (1841). "Coombs's standard phrenology". Printed for the author by H.L. Devereux, printer. Boston, MA. p. 7. 
  20. ^ a b The Phrenological Journal of Science and Health, Vol 95-6, p. 96, Fowler & Wells, 1892.
  21. ^ "Caspar Spurzheim, M.D. | Prints and engravings collection, 1830s-1920s (GC002)". Historic New England. 1920-09-13. Retrieved 2013-11-01.