Monday, February 05, 2007

Lumps on your Head: Phrenology.

Above: A phrenology bust. (image © FatherCrow 2007)

At the beginning of the 19th century things were very different from what they are now. Medical science had just begun to take the huge leaps forward in its capabilities that would forever change humanities relationship with it. The 18th century had been a time of reticent and spasmodic baby steps forward, hampered by not a small amount of quackery, much of the medical knowledge of the time advocated bloodletting and purging . The 19th century was to be different.

The Physical body, from 1800 on, limb by limb, organ by organ had begun to be tamed. Optimism that eventually all human medical ailments could be eventually cured was rife. Humanity would eventually be delivered from its own weaknesses. The modern era really launched with Robert Koch's discoveries around 1880 of the movement and infection of disease by bacteria, then the invention/discovery of antiboitics shortly afterwards circa 1900 really began to give both medical professionals and the hoi polloi alike the hope that we would eventually be masters of this biological form that contained "us". Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that washing with chlorinated lime solutions could reduce surgical deaths to below one percent. We had set foot on the first rungs of the ladder of immortality. No one could hear Jacob laughing.

As the physical sciences raced ahead with discovery after discovery the study of the mind and its ailments lagged sadly behind as mental disorders were still very much beyond the ken (as the Scottish say) of the medical profession. We had the potential to live forever, but we could not fathom the myriad sicknesses of the personality. We could not even measure them, or tie them down to a specific part of the body. And so many foolish and overtly optimistic treatments and branches of medicine were developed in an effort to even the physical/mental divide in the science of medicine.

In 1800 a man named Franz Joseph Gall was to attempt to change that uneven divide. Gall, (1758-1828) studied medicine at the University of Strasbourg and then went on to complete his degree in Vienna developed the ideas of Cranioscopy whereby he began to infer that specific brain functions could be identified by the outer shape of the human skull. Thus Gall claimed, you could discover the type of personality, moral and mental functions of an individual by examining the outer contours of the individual in questions skull. Gall listed specific personality traits that were linked to specific skull points with specific shapes. Though Phrenology has been discredited over the years as a science, it is still credited with being a "proto-science" as it first linked the brain to the mind and suggested that specific areas of the brain were responsible for specific aspects of what we now describe as the personality. Phrenology though is based on the misuse of the "causal inferences" of modern medicine and science. Modern medicine and Neurology have proven that the skull shape is in no way an indicator of behavioral patterns.

Cranioscopy eventually was renamed "Phrenology" by a follower of Gall's a man named Johann Spurzheim. Spurzheim was an assistant to Gall who so impressed the good doctor that he was considered the sucessor and torch bearer of the new science, Gall even added Spurzheims name to some of the books that he authored about his discovery. Spurzheim was the individual most responsible for the increasing popularity of the "science" but later had a falling out with his mentor but still continued to travel far and wide preaching his new gospel. Spurzheim died in 1832 on his first American tour. His brain, skull and heart were removed and preserved in alcohol, and then put on display for the public.

This new "science" of phrenology was not accepted without criticism, many religious leaders, the Catholic Church in particular regarded it almost as heresy. Some scientists, respected ones at that, were aggrieved with the spread of this particular medical meme, some said that they were reluctant to take Gall and Spurzheim at their words, as there was, to all intents and purposes no "proof" in a purely scientific sense. Gall tried to settle in a few countries, even France, where to his dismay his science was condemned by none other a historical personality than Napoleon Bonaparte. Gall still managed to curry favour in Parisian society and settled there until his death in 1828.

Though France did not accept his theories, they were not rejected elsewhere, in England and the United States his theories were repeatedly used to justify racial discrimination, as Gall had created a science that used the shape of the head to define characteristics there was of course a head shape that resulted in a well balanced and stable personality. Multiple measurements were used, pincers and strange mechanical hat like devices were developed to perform the measurements, busts were created to show the ideal shape of the head. The ideal shape, was, of course that of a geometrically balanced Caucasian head. In the United states Phrenology was used to justify racial segregation and the United Kingdom used it to justify the superiority of the ruling or "upper" classes. Phrenologists all through Victorian times were consulted on whether individuals would be appropriate employees or marriage partners. Even Lloyd George the British Prime Minister arranged a meeting with one particular writer on the justification that he had "an interesting shaped head"

Phrenology survived into the 20th century despite being rejected as a true science by the majority of 20th century physicians. It's use became more political then medical. The apogee of this political use manifested like a tumor within the already sick national psyche of Nazi Germany. It was of course used as a scientific basis for the upholding of Germans and Aryans in general as a master race. Himmler during his tenure as Reichfuhrer SS, dispatched members of his SS Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Heritage) department (which is worth researching yourselves) to various countries around the world taking, amongst other things, plaster of Paris head casts that were then shipped back to Germany and used as, you guessed it, Phrenelogical examples of the inferiority of other races. Most of us I think, are aware as to where this particular type of study led. The study of bumps on the head began to be a justification for the creation of them as the truncheons of the Nazi's fell on the heads of the untermensch.

I myself have a Phrenology bust on display in my home, purchased from an antique dealer with an unusual predilection for anomalies of earlier times. The bust is on display for one reason and one reason only. To remind myself on no account to take someone else's word for what is true or not true, no matter how apparently well respected or established they or their organisation is, but to do my own research and make my own decisions.

It's a surprisingly effective mnemonic device.

Peace and Hope



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ha Ha you should see my avatar on go //

Peace and Hope

3:20 PM  
Blogger fathercrow said...

Hey Cormac:

Heh, yeah, nice Phrenology head. Suits you sir. Also clears up a mystery as to who the hell linked to my Robert Anton Wilson obit.

Cheers for that.

Hope all is well out East.

Word to the missus.

Peace and Hope


4:37 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home