Head Cases: The Baltimore Phrenological Society
On February 17, 1827 an assemblage of distinguished minds from Baltimore’s medical community gathered at the home of Dr. Richard Sprigg Steuart for the inaugural meeting of a new scientific and medical organization. Among those present were Dr. William Donaldson, Sprigg’s medical partner; Dr. H.H. Hayden, dentist and future founder of Baltimore College of Dental Surgery; Dr. Joshua I. Cohen, of the prominent Baltimore family; Doctors G.S. Gibson, Patrick Macaulay, and G.S. Sproston; chemist and geologist Julius Ducatel, and Mr. Edward Denison. The Baltimore Phrenological Society was born.(1)
Phrenology (from the Greek phren for mind and logos for discourse or knowledge) is a pseudoscience that purports to measure a person’s psychological, intellectual, and personality capacities through the study of the size and shape of the skull. The man largely responsible for ushering in the modern era of phrenology at the end of the eighteenth century was Austrian physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828).
The basic premise of phrenology, laid out by Gall in The Anatomy and Physiology of the Nervous System in General, and of the Brain in Particular, with Observations upon the possibility of ascertaining the several Intellectual and Moral Dispositions of Man and Animal, by the configuration of their Heads, published in 1819, is that the human mind consists of 27 faculties—character, personality, and intellectual traits—each with its own “organ” or region in the brain. These range from: reproductive instincts, aptitude for being educated, satire and wit, kindness, and the love of one’s offspring to poetic talent, mathematical abilities, pride, guile, and murderous instincts. Later phrenological practitioners expanded the number of faculties to 40 or more.
According to Gall, the brain is shaped by these organs, which vary in size according to the individual—the larger the organ the more pronounced the specific trait would be exhibited in the subject. The skull, in turn, is shaped by the development of the organs, producing the various bumps, protuberances and crevices that make each human skull unique. Thus, to the practiced phrenologist the “surface of the skull can be read as an accurate index of psychological aptitudes and tendencies.”(2)
Although today phrenology is dismissed as a pseudoscience, some of its tenets—that certain functions are localized in the brain, and that specific areas of the brain can grow with use—are scientifically accepted fact. But for a time in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century it was accepted by large numbers of people that a person’s character, intelligence, and personality could be gleaned by precise measurements of the the bumps on the skull.
Phrenology emerged in England in the 1790s, promoted principally by Gall and his student Johann Gaspar Spurzheim; by the late 1820s it had crossed the Atlantic and began to attract followers in the United States precipitating a boom in popularity that lasted until the 1840s. Societies and organizations promoting phrenology and providing head readings emerged, with the first established in Edinburgh, England in 1820.
By the end of the 1820s phrenological enthusiasts were meeting in cities in the United States. Following its founding in February of 1827, the Baltimore Phrenological Society grew from nine to 22 members, attracting prominent Marylanders such as lawyer John H.B. Latrobe, William Ellicott, grandson of the founder of Ellicott Mills, author and statesman John Pendleton Kennedy, and State Senator and Judge William Frick. The group gathered on a weekly basis at member’s homes to discuss the merits of phrenology, host lectures, and measure skulls.
The main tools of the practicing phrenologist were calipers, used for “ascertaining the general size of the head,” and the craniometer, which measured “the length from the medulla oblongata, or top of the spinal marrow, where each organ originates, to the point where it reaches the surface of the brain.”(3) Both devices involved inserting metal rods into the subjects ears. The Baltimore organization examined the heads of Baltimoreans, both young and old, male and female, prominent and obscure. Among those who sat for readings were Prince Charles Bonaparte, Solomon Etting, and William Wirt. The group also recorded measurements of their own skulls. John H.B. Latrobe “organs” were larger than his fellow members in 12 of 25 categories measured, including firmness, benevolence, and wit but smallest in philoprogenitiveness (love of one’s offspring). John Pendleton Kennedy scored highest in self-esteem and love of approbation.
John Pendleton Kennedy was connected with one of the more famous advocates of phrenology, Edgar Allen Poe. While in Baltimore in the early 1830s, Poe became acquainted with Kennedy, who seems to have helped him get hired as an editor and critic with the Southern Literary Messenger, a literary journal published out of Richmond, Virginia. Poe became fascinated with phrenology around the time he was in Baltimore in the mid-1830s. In a book review of Phrenology and the Moral Influence of Phrenology by Mrs. L. Miles published in the journal in 1836, Poe boldly asserted that,
“Phrenology is no longer to be laughed at. It is no longer laughed at by men of common understanding. It has assumed the majesty of a science; and, as a science, ranks among the most important which can engage the attention of thinking beings…with proper caution, and well-directed inquiry, individuals may obtain, through the science, a perfectly accurate estimate of their own moral capabilities – and thus instructed, will be the better fitted for decision in regard to a choice of offices and duties in life.”(4)
The novelist, editor, and poet would go on to include references to phrenology in some of his stories, such as “The Imp of the Perverse,” published in 1845.
By the 1840s, the “science” of phrenology had been essentially discredited. The Baltimore Phrenological Society appears to have been a short-lived enterprise, lasting less than two years. However, following a visit and lecture from phrenologist Lorenzo Niles Fowler in 1847, another society was established in the city. Lorenzo, along with his brother Orson Squire Fowler, was largely responsible for a revival of popular interest in phrenology beginning in the 1860s and continuing into the early twentieth century. This brand of phrenology, was less scientific and more entrepreneurial than its predecessor, with practitioners charging fees to read heads. It also was used, along with the close related physiognomy, in support of theories of racial superiority. While the British Phrenological Society founded by Lorenzo Fowler in 1887 carried on until 1967, there is no evidence that the second incarnation of the Baltimore Phrenological Society survived the nineteenth century. (Damon Talbot)
Sources and further reading:
(1) The original name of the organization was the Phrenological Association of Baltimore; Phrenological Association of Baltimore, Minute Books, 1827-1829, MS 1102, MdHS.
Calvert, George Henry, Illustrations of phrenology (Baltimore: W. and J. Neal, 1832)