Phrenology in the 19th century

Among the many incredible objects on display in the library at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is a collection of life and death masks. These objects, on long-term loan from the Anatomical Museum at the University of Edinburgh, are our link to the nineteenth century practice of phrenology.

The collection of life and death masks, on loan from the Anatomical Museum at the University of Edinburgh. The masks on the left-hand-side of the cabinet are of criminals William Burke and William Hare (top), George Campbell and John Dempsey (centre), and George Bryce and John Adam. The identities of the masks on the right-hand-side of the cabinet are unknown.

Phrenology was the study of the skull in relation to personality and behaviour. Phrenologists believed that the brain was made up of different organs or zones, and these zones corresponded to a different attribute like secretiveness and assertiveness.

An abundance of this attribute would manifest itself in a bump on the skull, and phrenologists believed that by analysing these bumps you could determine someone’s personality.

Devised by Franz Joseph Gall and his apprentice Johann Casper Spurzheim in the late eighteenth century, phrenology quickly spread throughout Europe and North America.

The Edinburgh Phrenological Society, which previously owned the masks we have on display, was founded by George Combe in 1820.

Phrenology was never universally accepted, but it did have a profound impact on psychiatry. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the care given to people with mental health issues and learning difficulties was under scrutiny. Many doctors campaigned for better moral care, as asylums were seen as prison-like, with treatment being akin to punishment. Patients were often shackled to restrain them and beaten as punishment instead of given care.

A mask on loan from the Anatomical Museum at the University of Edinburgh.

Dr William A. F. Brown was a member of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society, he believed in phrenology as a way to prove that asylum patients should be treated more kindly and offered therapeutic remedies including art therapy. Browne was also superintendent at Montrose Asylum, a position he was given after George Combe and his brother Andrew Combe recommended him, and his seminal work What Asylums Were, Are and Ought to Be was dedicated to Andrew Combe, another member of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society. Browne turned away from phrenology during the 1830s, as did most of the scientific community, but the early period of his profession show how interlinked phrenology was with psychiatry.

Phrenologists made casts of people with learning difficulties and disabilities and we have examples of these in the library. Although the phrenologists were mostly very good at record keeping, in this case, the subjects were not named, only categorised by the perceived trait that the phrenologists were interested in. Further issues arise when looking at the language used for this categorisation. Two of the life masks we have on display were previously labelled with the phrenologists’ original title of ‘idiot’. Although the word idiot is now used as a derogatory term, it was a medical classification at the time that these casts were made. But displaying the word for a modern audience can be controversial, and so requires context and considered explanation.

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is currently involved in a project exploring the background of the collection, and working on improving the interpretation of the objects on display. We are working closely with the University of Edinburgh on this, but also with other institutions and groups who have better knowledge and experience of mental health and disability.

The aim is to be able to better tell the stories of our unnamed life and death masks, discuss the limited but growing understanding of mental health and disability during the nineteenth century, and explain phrenology’s contribution to this history.

By Becky Howell, Librarian & Research Assistant, 11 December 2018