Recently, a piece of medical history came into our showroom that has us a bit perplexed. A skull, mounted on a stand that was once part of a Dutch collection, labeled not only with the names of bones, but with characteristics such as “Benevolence” and “Ideality” written in careful script in segmented sections upon the skull. From the first look, this appears to be a skull from the era of the pseudoscience “Phrenology.”
Phrenology was an idea developed by the German doctor Franz Joseph Gall in the 19th century, and centered around the idea that the human brain could be defined by distinct regions or “organs” responsible for various personality traits, instincts, and functions. These regions and their prominence in individuals could be determined through examination of outer characteristics of the skull such as bumps and indentations, according to phrenologists. Gall’s theories began during his schooling, when he noticed that his classmates with big eyes and foreheads seemed to all be adept at rote memorization. This led to his belief that mental characteristics could be tied to physical attributes, and was the basis of his quest to map the brain’s regions definitively.
Phrenologists believed that through outer skull examination, characteristics such as criminality or artistic ability could be predicted, and with intervention, nurtured or discouraged. These ideas were furthered by news coverage of cases such as Phineas P. Gage, and the early beginnings of psychiatry becoming more prominent in medical communities.
During the early 19th century, phrenology spread, with lecturers such as Gall’s protégé Johann Kaspar Spurzheim spreading these ideas to American audiences, it soon came to influence much of American medical beliefs. Phrenologists set up offices and offered skull examinations. Employers started requiring phrenological assessments as conditions of employment, famous authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allen Poe incorporated the concepts into their works, and it furthered self-help culture that is still prevalent in Western capitalist society today.
As with any examination of physical characteristics, the biases and prejudices of the examiner comes into question. Many phrenologists believed that their beliefs were proof that white people were biologically superior, also commonly known as “eugenics.” Features common in white individuals were claimed to be evidence of higher intelligence, while features common in individuals of other racial backgrounds were deemed to be signs of mental deficit and barbarism. This belief of superiority also served to subjugate features found in female anatomy, furthering sexist ideology and the promotion of white male supremacy. These ideas were used by dictators to subjugate and slaughter innocent people, as evidenced in the Holocaust. These racist and sexist claims were not universally accepted at the time, and are publicly decried as false and harmful in the modern day. Modern scientists and historians recognize that phrenology was a building block upon which many horrors were constructed.
While phrenology has been unilaterally disproven, it was a foundational part of modern medicine. We no longer classify the brain as distinct organs, but we do understand that some parts of it are responsible for some functions while others are more multi-function. We also understand that the physical appearance of people has nothing to do with their internal character, and that such claims are ludicrous.
Phrenology, while a substantial movement in medical history, deserves to be examined critically, understanding that it is a product of its time, and a tool used in a system of oppression. From phrenology and eugenics, we can understand that science is not exempt from bias, and must be held to a high standard of ethical rigor to prevent any individual prejudice from skewing data and harming future research. While the piece in our collection is a relic of this harmful history, we believe that it must be preserved so that future generations of psychologists, doctors, historians, and academics can understand the scope of their professions’ foundational history.