The Rise of Phrenology in Edinburgh

Franz Joseph Gall

Founder of phrenology

Johann Gasper Spurzheim

Gall’s principal pupil

George Combe

Founder of the EPS

Franz Joseph Gall was a German born physician who worked most of his life in Vienna. He introduced Phrenology during the end of the 18th Century, although then it was called ‘Cranioscopy’ and was only later named Phrenology by his pupil Johann Spurzheim. Even as a boy, Gall had been very interested in the relationship between a person’s intellect and the shape of their head.

Johann Gasper Spurzheim joined Gall in 1800 as a medical student and soon became his principle pupil, secretary and assistant. They lectured around Europe together and truly believed they had found the key to understanding the mind. However, they parted ways in 1813 as Spurzheim wanted to use their knowledge to help social and penal reform.

George Combe saw Spurzheim lecture in Edinburgh and was quickly convinced of the science. He founded the Edinburgh Phrenological Society and helped boost the subject’s popularity with large debates. Phrenology became hugely popular in Edinburgh in the 1820s and it was soon one of the most important centers for Phrenology in the world.

How Phrenology Became Popular in Edinburgh

A changing society was ready for new ideas to explain the functions of the brain and many people welcomed the doctrine of Phrenology. People began to believe less in God and phrenology started the question of materialism and fatalism.

"[Before phrenology] all we knew about the brain was, how to slice it..."

-- R. Chenevix (phrenologist),1828.

Spurzheim visited Edinburgh after an attack on phrenology by the Edinburgh Review, which was a very highly respected magazine. George Combe, who was then a lawyer, saw Spurzheim lecture and was convinced of the science.

George Combe helped found the Edinburgh Phrenological Society and moulded the science to become appealing to the public. By lecturing in the evening he made it more of a middle class entertainment than anything else, exposing a large cross-section of the population to Phrenology.

The Society thrived on large debates, pulling in huge crowds, and after the Edinburgh Review refused to publish one debate, they started publishing their own journal ‘The Phrenological Journal and Miscellany’. This gave them a lot more freedom to publish what they wanted.

William Henderson, a close friend to George Combe, left a large bequest to the Society. They published Combe’s book The Constitution of Man in 1828. It became one of the

best selling books of the 19th century, selling approximately 350,000 copies between 1828 and 1900.

In comparison, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species sold only 50,000 copies in just under half that time.

This is an account by Audubon the well-known naturalist, having his personality assessed by a Phrenologist. Phrenology became especially popular to those who perhaps thought a bit too highly of themselves !

Go to the page titled ‘Death Masks’ to see some of the collection at Edinburgh University

The Edinburgh Phrenological Society was the first of its kind, but others began to appear all over Britain. The societies would gather huge collections of life and death masks, which they used as their ‘proof’ of the science - it is much easier to show a plaster head than a real one.

They would argue over who had the best collection, and whilst London had a collection of around 5,000 heads and Edinburgh only 2,500, the collection at Edinburgh was deemed more scientifically useful.

In the 1800s there was a phrenology museum on Chambers Street, where the Crown Office is now. You can recognize the building by the four portrait busts above the windows. The museum shut down in 1886.