Phrenology in Edinburgh during the nineteenth century

University of Edinburgh, Scotland

An account is presented of the development of Phrenology from the early observations of Gall towards the end of the 18th century, and how his doctrine was effectively taken over by his disciple Spurzheim during the early decades of the 19th century. It was Spurzheim who convinced many, but particularly George Combe in Edinburgh, that it was Gall’s Phrenology, as interpreted by him, that provided a means of facilitating social advance that held out the promise of improving the lot of the population. He convinced Combe and his associates that they had a moral responsibility to improve the educational facilities available to the working classes, for example, by reducing their hours of labour and increasing their access to Mechanics’ Institutes. It was here that they could widen their horizons by means of self-improvement.

Many of the early Members of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society were, as lawyers or advocates, keen to introduce penal reform. This was in the expectation that by this means they might reduce the incidence of criminality in the population, even if this took several generations to achieve. The Members met on a regular basis, between the establishment of the Society and the early 1830s, and then less frequently, and debated a wide range of questions on subjects related to Phrenology. By this means, they maintained an interest in the subject, and also persuaded others to establish Phrenological Societies both elsewhere in Britain, on the Continent and in the United States of America.

Because of the nature of the subject, the Members of the Edinburgh Society acquired a large number of artefacts that allowed them to more easily understand the complexities of their ‘science’, and to convince others of its validity and general applicability. Within a few years, nearly 40 other phrenological societies were established elsewhere in Britain, although the Members of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society believed that they had a special role to play in promoting the purity of their ‘science.’ For many of the Members of the Edinburgh Society, and later almost everywhere where there were adherents of Phrenology, their gospel was Combe’s Constitution of Man.

Symposium I: 18th and 19th Century Edinburgh Neuroscience
Thursday, 7 July 2005, 10.00 am - 1.00 pm

Tenth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN) and
Tenth Meeting of the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN)

St. Andrews, Scotland, 2005