Phrenology was developed by German physician Franz Joseph Gall in 1796, and was widely referenced by scientists, mesmerists and moral philosophers mainly in the first half of the 19th Century.  The central premise of Phrenology was that certain areas of the brain correspond to specific functions, modes of thought or character traits. While it has since been discredited as a “pseudoscience” it is seen as being influential in the development of psychoanalysis, hypnosis and neuroscience.


The nature of phrenology changed throughout its lifetime. When first formulated by Gall in the late 18th Century it was stated that the brain as made of 27 individual organs which determined certain traits. For example, number 4 on Gall’s neurological diagram represented self-defense, a rather primitive impulse, whereas areas considered more complex such as number 15 represented an individual’s faculty for language and words and number 18 arithmetic and numbers.

Gall deliberately meant to express his understanding of these organs by using broad and vague terms and did not approve of the certainty of a particular impulse attributed to these organs by later phrenologists such as fellow German doctor Johann Spurzheim. Spurzheim subdivided these organs further, stating in his “Physiognomical System” (1815) that there were in fact thirty-two distinctive organs representing different traits and impulses.

Spurzheim, who was the first to widely use the term “Phrenology,” divided these organs into different orders and ‘Genuses’ with Order one being feelings and Genus one being propensities which are common to man and the lower animals such as combativeness and amativeness (desire for sex). Genus two of the first order was thus compiled of ‘sentiments proper to man’ including ‘hope’ ‘wonder’ and ‘wit.’

Spurzheims Order Two were intellectual faculties with Genus one being external senses such as touch, taste etc and Genus 2 being a knowledge of the qualities of external objects, form, size, weight etc. Genus 3 was related to judgmental faculties; causality, comparison.

It was through Scottish Dr George Combe that the ideas of phrenology were spread throughout the English speaking world and he began to produce a broad body of literature on it after witnessing a brain dissection by Spurzheim. Combe’s book “On the constitution of Man and it’s relationship to External Objects” (1828) sold over 200,000 copies through nine editions.

Over the course of the 1830’s and 1840’s phrenology became interwoven with other new quasi scientific fields, most importantly, Mesmerism. This amalgamation was largely due to the work of Dr John Elliotson, who founded and became the president of the London Phrenological Society in 1824 and was later to reference it extensively in his studies of Mesmerism.

Phrenology was slowly discredited from the 1840’s onwards for a number of reasons, one of which was the fact that it’s practitioners never came to an agreement as to the number of mental organs. Alongside this, the intermingling of Phrenology with other fields such as Mesmerism seemed to give the scientific community the impression that it was bound up with occultism, moral philosophy and human influence rather than being a legitimate field of scientific enquiry.

Theory and Method

Practitioners of Phrenology such as those mentioned above believed that a greater understanding of these organs of the brain could lead to better treatment of brain and nervous disorders such as epilepsy and all kinds of mental problems. The Phrenologist would often take measurements of the head and thus could assess the relative size of certain cerebral organs. The phrenologist would put emphasis on using drawings of individuals with particular traits, to determine the character of a person and thus many phrenology books are essentially case files of various individual subjects.

As mentioned, a number of prominent Mesmerists took the ideas of Phrenology and combined them with their own work; almost certainly the most prominent of these was Dr John Elliotson.

In his work “Case of Epilepsy cured by Mesmerism” published in The Zoist in 1844, Elliotson states; “I now found myself possessed of a new power, that I could affect the cerebral organs themselves directly” and that by doing this he would bring out expected traits. For example, Elliotson writes; “whenever I Mesmerised Benevolence or Attachment she mistook me for someone she loved.”

This work shows the confluence of the ideas of Mesmerism and Phrenology in the work of a leading practitioner.

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