The Phrenological Faculties

Phrenology at the Countway Library of Medicine


hy do we act the way we do? What determines the patterns of our behavior and personality? These are questions to which every generation seeks answers. Today, psychology and, increasingly, genetics are being explored to understand and explain the vicissitudes of human nature, but these are only just the latest in a long string of explanations. During the 19th century, phrenology—the study of human cranial structures and their application to personality, character, and behavior—provided another, and a popular, explanation.

At its peak, phrenology excited intense interest among both scientists and the public in Boston and throughout the world. Although its heyday has long passed, the movement endured into the 20th century, and some of its vestiges can still be found today. Talking Heads explores the basis for phrenological study, some of the major figures associated with it, and Boston's own unique place in the history of this peculiar and popular movement.

A Symbolical Head

oth the Boston Medical Library and the Harvard Medical Library have long held strong collections of published works on the subject of phrenology, and the Boston Medical Library acquired a collection of letters of Nahum Capen, of the phrenological publishing firm of Marsh, Capen, and Lyon, in 1884. This already impressive array of source materials was enhanced in 1970 by the purchase of a cache of letters and manuscripts of noted phrenologist J. G. Spurzheim, documenting his American tour and final years, and a rich assortment of pamphlets, minute books, and phrenology-related manuscript items from the British Phrenological Society, formerly in the possession of its secretary, James W. Marshall, documenting developments in phrenology into the middle of the twentieth century. Complementing the library collections is the Boston Phrenological Society's collection of casts and skulls housed in the Warren Anatomical Museum. All of these resources make the Countway Library an extraordinary repository for the history of the phrenology movement.

Symbolical Head

Purchased for the Boston Medical Library, 1970

1 2 3 4 5 6

Close This Window