Phrenology was a popular 19th century theory that a person's character could be read by measuring the shape of his or her skull. This plaster head is called a phrenology head or bust.
Modern phrenology was founded in the 1790s on the tenets of an Austria physician, Franz Joseph Gall. During Gall's time, neurologists proved that different areas of a person's brain were responsible for different functions such as memory and speech. Gall, however, took this scientific proof one step further when he developed phrenology, which he called "cranioscopy." According to Gall's theory, the mind is composed of distinct "organs" responsible for certain faculties. All things being equal, the size of an organ is a measure of its power. He believed that the different sizes of the organs of the brain determined the physical shape of a person's skull based on how strong or how weak that organ is. He surmised that just as muscles grow larger when they are exercised, different parts of the brain would either grow or shrink with use. Therefore, the shape and surface of the skull could be read as an index of an individual's natural capacities, aptitudes, and tendencies.
During a skull reading, the phrenologist would run his fingers and palms over a person's head, carefully feeling for bumps and concavities. Occasionally a tape measure or calipers also were used to get precise measurements. These shapes would then be compared to a three-dimensional head (see a side view of the plaster bust) or a chart (see image below) to determine which of the approximately 35 organs were responsible for an individual's aptitudes and characteristics.
According to the phrenologists, both physiological conditions (such as circulation and digestion) and mental faculties (such as cautiousness or veneration) could be measured on the skull and graded on a scale of 1 (very small) to 7 (very large). For example, if a person was determined to have a very large Eventuality organ, he should "possess a wonderfully retentive memory of facts, incidents, and general knowledge, and have strong craving for information. [He] would be a great devourer of books, newspapers, and periodicals; and with large Language and Imitation [organs], would excel in story-telling." And a person with a very small Eventuality organ? According to the 1869 book, How to Read Character, "Your memory is utterly untrustworthy. You forget almost everything relating to what has happened, no matter how recently."
Making the Most of Himself
The subjects who participated in phrenology did so because they believed that if they received a true character reading, it would help them be more self-aware and more carefully choose a mate and a vocation. The phrenologist would tell them, based on their measurements, which mental faculties they needed to either restrain or cultivate in order to "correct any errors of judgment or improper habits he may possess—to cultivate and develop all the higher qualities of mind and heart—and to make the most of his opportunities and of himself."
Critics of phrenology have compared it to a palm reading or an astrological reading. If a person's attributes and characteristics as read by a phrenologist did not seem to fit his personality, the criticism was discounted by stating that another of the brain's larger organs counteracted the effects of the small organ. Critics also pointed out that the location and function of particular organs were occasionally revised and renamed and that the number of organs initially began at 26 during Gall's time and increased to 35 or more by the turn of the 20th century. There were also racial and anthropological concerns as particular groups of people were labeled and categorized by their skull shape.
Phrenology was discredited by scientists and others by the 1840s and was equated with other forms of quackery. Nevertheless, it remained popular, with peaks in the 1830s and 1840s, the 1860s, the 1890s, and into the early 20th century.
The phrenology bust in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History may be seen in the "Business and Industry" section of the museum's main gallery. This particular model dates from the early to mid-19th century.
Entry: Phrenology Head
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: November 1999
Date Modified: December 2014
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