Phrenology: History And Featured Phrenologists

The  Phrenology  is a pseudoscience based on the study of personality and psychological characteristics of a person by measuring his skull. The term comes from two ancient Greek words,  phren  (meaning “mind”) and  logos  (translated as “knowledge”).

The idea behind phrenology is that the brain is the organ in which the mind is located, and that some areas of the brain have specific functions related to mental processes. Although these ideas are based on reality, phrenologists drew conclusions from them without having any scientific basis to do so.


Phrenology was developed in 1796 by the physician Franz Joseph Gall, but the study of the mind by measurements of the skull did not become popular until later. During the 19th century, phrenology became a very important discipline in the study of neuroanatomy.


Phrenology was a precursor discipline of the modern scientific study of the mind, developed mainly by the Viennese physician Franz Joseph Gall. His main ideas, and on which he based phrenology, were the following:

– The brain is the organ in which the mind is located.

– The mind is composed of a large number of well differentiated innate faculties.

– Because these innate faculties are differentiated, each of them is located in a different brain organ.

– The magnitude of each organ indicates its power and, therefore, the mental capacities of the person.

– The shape of the brain is given by the development of the different organs.

– Because the shape of the skull adapts to that of the brain, by measuring a person’s skull we can discover a great deal of information about their mental characteristics.

Therefore, the main procedure followed by phrenologists was to measure people’s skulls in order to examine the size of their different brain organs. For example, it was believed that a very broad forehead appeared in very benevolent people.

Phases in the history of phrenology

The history of phrenology can be divided mainly into three phases. The first, which ran from the mid-1790s to the 1810s, was influenced by the two pioneers of this pseudoscience: Gall, and his disciple JG Spurzheim.

Beginning in 1815, an article published in the  Edinburgh review  increased public and scientific community awareness of phrenology, leading to this discipline beginning to gain some popularity in the English-speaking world.

Expansion of phrenology around the world

After this time, phrenology became a discipline of study with many adherents, who tried to become the first scholars of what they considered one of the most important sciences in history. His vision was to develop a discipline that would allow us to understand and explain human nature.

In 1820 the first Phrenological Society was founded in Edinburgh, and over the next few decades many more emerged both in the UK and in America. During this time, a large number of journals on phrenology also began to be published, following the model of scientific journals.

Phrenology soon gained widespread popularity in these two regions, being adopted by groups as different as reformist scientists and religious fanatics.

From there it spread to France in the 1830s, reaching Germany in the 1840s, where it became even more popular than in the United States.

Last decades of phrenology

Phrenology lost almost all its importance in the United Kingdom during the 1850s, but it continued to enjoy some importance thanks to a phrenologist named Fowler.

His ideas were the ones that put the focus on cranial measurement of people, in a much more intense way than in previous decades.

On the other hand, in the last decades of the 19th century, phrenology was used as a justification for racism, arguing that the differences in the cranial anatomy of the different races also justified the social injustices that some of them suffered.

Featured phrenologists

Some of the most prominent phrenologists in the history of this discipline were the following:

Franz Joseph Gal

He was the creator of the discipline and in charge of developing its basic premises. He got phrenology introduced in the UK, where it became very popular.

JG Spurzheim

He was a disciple of Gall and modified some of the bases of this discipline; in addition, it managed to further expand the body of knowledge about it.

George Combe

This Scottish lawyer made phrenology very popular throughout Europe, mainly through his ideas about the contributions it could make to middle-class people.

Lorenzo Niles Fowler

Together with his brother Orson Squire Fowler, he further developed cranial measurement techniques and their relationship to the mental and psychological characteristics of people.

His ideas served to drive the success of phrenology during the last decades when this discipline was still popular.

Why is it considered pseudoscience?

Today, phrenology is not considered a serious discipline of study within the scientific community. The main reason for this is that during its development and the creation of the theories on which it is based, the scientific method was not used to contrast the data obtained.

For a discipline to be considered scientific, the data collected during its studies have to be contrasted using the experimental method.

That is, it must be possible to establish a cause and effect relationship between different phenomena, in addition to being able to falsify the data collected in the study of the discipline.

However, phrenology was based only on observations and anecdotal evidence. Although sometimes it is possible to learn a lot just with this type of information, it is not enough to generate knowledge that can be considered scientific.

When phrenology was subjected to experimental tests, it was found that most of its claims could not be supported by science. Therefore, today phrenology has totally lost its importance and has been replaced by disciplines such as neuroscience.


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  5. “The Constitution of Man in Relation to External Objects” in: History of Phrenology. Retrieved on: 04 April 2018 from History of Phrenology:

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