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You Need Your Head Examined: Pages from ‘Vaught’s Practical Character Reader’ (1902)

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Phrenology is the study of the various bumps and lumps on the human skull that were once upon a time thought to reveal an individual’s character, thoughts, and emotions. During the 19th century phrenology became a popular science through its promotion by German neuroanatomist and physiologist, Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1820). But is now considered a pseudomedicine–a bit of hokum that sounds probable but is bogus

Gall believed the brain consisted of 27 individual organs that determined personality. Each of these organs was to be found under a different part of the skull. By gently massaging or moving fingers over these areas a doctor or phrenologist could determine personal strengths and weaknesses–tendencies in character rather than “absolute limits”.

It was not a new idea. The belief human physiognomy–the shape of the forehead, curve of the brow, or length of the nose, eyes too close together–could determine character had long been accepted by Greek philosophers. It lost favour during the Middle Ages but was (perhaps surprisingly) reaffirmed in the 17th century by scientists like Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) who believed the face revealed the soul:

Since the Brow speaks often true, since Eyes and Noses have Tongues, and the countenance proclaims the heart and inclinations; let observation so far instruct thee in Physiognomical lines….

In 1809, Gall started work on his seminal book 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, in which he set out the main principles for a new science which became better known as phrenology:

1. The brain is the organ of the mind.
2. It is not a homogenous unit, but rather a grouping together of 27 different “organs” with each having its own function.
3. These organs also have their own particular location in the brain.
4. Therefore, the difference in size of these “organs” indicate the strength and weakness of an individual character.
5. This means it should be possible to diagnose personality and possible ailments by feeling each of these different areas.

Gall was keen to establish his own scientific discipline. But it was a canny Scotsman George Combe (1788-1858) who helped popularise Gall’s ideas mainly through the mass publication of cheap phrenology guides that enabled a growing educated middle class adopt Gall’s ideas.

Spool on to the turn of the 20th century and phrenology is as popular as ghost stories, Penny Dreadfuls and Sherlock Holmes. In 1902, Louis Allen Vaught self-published a handy little guide on the use of phrenology as a means of understanding human nature. Vaught’s Practical Character Reader offered the reader the chance to acquaint themselves

…with the elements of human nature and enable them to read these elements in all men, women and children in all countries. At least fifty thousand careful examinations have been made to prove the truthfulness of the nature and location of these elements. More than a million observations have been made to confirm the examinations. Therefore, it is given the world to be depended upon. Taken in its entirety it is absolutely reliable. Its facts can be completely demonstrated by all who will take the unprejudiced pains to do so. It is ready for use. It is practical. Use it.

Vaught wrote and illustrated this book–showing readers the key things to look out for: lofty foreheads, pleasing brows, dreamy eyes, and a fine turned chin; and of course what to avoid: ridged craniums, large fleshy chins, pointy ears, flat or swollen heads–which were all a supposed sign of deadly danger.


























Via Public Domain Review.