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In today’s culture, if someone told you that you should have your head examined, you’d probably take it as an insult. In the early 1800s, people were clamoring to have their heads examined–by those trained in the new “science” of phrenology.

Coined from the Greek “phren” (mind) and “ology” (study or discourse) by German physician Johann Spurzheim, phrenology was the “classification and study of mental faculties through measurements of the skull” (Cassedy 43). Franz Joseph Gall, a physician in Vienna, was the first to develop a theory that the brain was not one organ but many, each with a special function, and that the shape of the skull matched the shape of the brain within it. Therefore, “studying the bumps and indentations of the skull could reveal information about the size, structure, and function of the brain areas beneath it” (Janik 55).

In a time before x rays, CT scans, or MRIs, this new way of gathering knowledge about the brain and its functions proved irresistible and soon spread beyond purely scientific interest to include an emphasis on self-improvement, more humane education of children, and better health in general. The idea that anyone, not matter what his status in society, could learn about himself and then improve on his abilities and achieve success fit perfectly into the popular mindset of the times.Phrenology Head

Head readings were often done using a device invented by Gall called a craniometer that fit over one’s head and guided the person doing the reading to certain key areas of the skull. There were even do-it-yourself guides for taking a reading of one’s own head. Maps showing the various areas were published in magazines and hung in doctor’s offices. In reality, the readings basically confirmed what the person wanted to hear. As Erika Janik explained, “Readings tended to shore up prevailing attitudes and reflected contemporary beliefs about the appropriate roles of men and women” (69).

Brothers Lorenzo and Orson Fowler were extremely successful in marketing phrenology to the masses in America. At the height of their popularity, some employers even required a Fowler reading as part of the application process for a prospective worker (Janik 70).

By the 1840s, however, the popularity of phrenology began to wane as new scientific advances took center stage. But its influence lingered, especially in more rural areas, as attested by its mention in my great-grandfather’s diary as late as 1874. As part of his teacher training at Northwestern Normal School in Fostoria, Ohio, he attended a lecture on phrenology and had his head felt by a dozen students. No mention was made of their observations.

Sources:  Cassedy, James H. Medicine in America: A Short History. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Janik, Erika. Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine. Boston: Beacon Press, 2014.