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Phrenology: A Victorian Science

Updated on February 26, 2020
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I love history; it forms the basis of my interest in genealogy and has an influence on our itinerary when on family holidays.

A phrenology head used by George Burgess (1829-1905) in his profession
A phrenology head used by George Burgess (1829-1905) in his profession

Phrenology Origin and Meaning

The Art of Reading a Person's Character

What is Phrenology and when was it practiced. Phrenology, in layperson's terms, is the art of reading a person's character and personality by the size and prominence of bumps on different parts of a person's head.

Phrenology was first developed by Franz Joseph Gall, a German physician, in 1796. He believed that the brain is the organ of the mind and that it is made of multiple distinct faculties, each one representing a separate organ in the brain. A bit wordy, but so far so good; it sounds reasonable and these days we would think of these separate regions as the speech, language and vision centers etc.

However, his view was that the size of these organs, all things being equal, must be a measure of its power and that shape of the brain is determined by the development of the various organs. And from this, as the skull takes on the shape of the brain the surface of the skull could be read as an accurate index of the psychological aptitudes of the person; in the absence of the scientific knowledge we have today about the brain I guess it was good reasoning!

His philosophy over the coming decades spread across much of the Western World and in the Victorian Era Phrenology was considered a science albeit these days it would fall within the realms of fortune telling and horoscopes!

All photos in this article are from my family photo album and artefacts.

An overview on the basics of phrenology in this 52 minute DVD documentary; Special Features includes a 25 minute interview with phrenology expert and phrenology diagram and chart listing the cerebral organs and faculties.

What is Phrenology?


The Modern View

Although phrenology remained popular right into the 20th century, these days it’s just regarded as a Pseudo-Science, and quite rightly so. Nevertheless, it remains an historic curiosity, giving insight into how people thought during a period when emerging sciences were still in its infancy.

Being scientifically minded I would put phrenology in the same category as fortune telling, horoscopes and predominantly the supernatural; although I’m sure not everybody would agree.

Supernatural vs Paranormal

Although there are similarities between the supernatural and paranormal e.g. they cover topics beyond the scope of current scientific understanding, I am more interested in the latter as a subject.

In my view the supernatural is more of an attempt to explain the unexplainable in a more religious context e.g. ghosts and spirts, whereas, some aspects of paranormal research tries to take a more scientific approach; albeit not often very scientifically. Nevertheless with quantum science being another pet subject of mine I need to keep an open mind about certain areas of paranormal research e.g. telekinesis and clairvoyance as our current understanding of quantum theory are supportive of these concepts in principle.

A Bristolian Phrenologist

George Burgess (1829-1905)

George Burgess, my great-great-grandfather, practiced Phrenology in the Arcades, Bristol, England for 40 years from 1861 until his retirement in 1901.

He took Phrenology one stage further; in his view, quoting from one of his books on Phrenology, he wrote:-

'The external is developed by the internal; and the outer form is the true expression of the inner spirit; hence all beings carry their characters with them, written outwardly on every feature of their complete organization'.

Therefore, although he believed the HEAD was (quoting from his book) 'the crowning portion of the human organization', 'the complete character of the person cannot be perfectly read from the body, or face, or head, singly. To discover the whole character the individual must be considered as a whole'.

So as well as practicing Phrenology he also looked at his client's feet, hands, neck, ears, jaws, chin, mouth, lips, nose, eyes, face and hair etc., and took into account their general health, voice, expression and complexion. From these readings he would give his clients guidance for happiness in marriage, a guide to good health and advice on the most suitable occupations.

As an example, part of what he wrote about 'hands' in his Phrenology book included:-

  • Long - A long thin hand indicates subordinate animal power, and little physical strength.
  • Short - A short, thick hand is a sign of physical compactness and firmness.
  • Square - Square tipped fingers, of uniform size from hand to tips, are a sign of uniform, plain, matter-of-fact nature.
  • Smooth - A smooth, soft hand, with rounded fingers shows an even, easy, and loving nature.

George Burgess (1829-1905), Phrenologist
George Burgess (1829-1905), Phrenologist

Phrenology Heads Used by George Burgess

Tools of His Trade

A head mapping out a person's character is the most important tool of the trade for phrenology. As well as the two books written by George Burgess I also inherited three of his heads, two carved out of wood and one in brass on wood, as pictured here.

Phrenology Heads belonging to George Burgess
Phrenology Heads belonging to George Burgess
Brass Phrenology Head used by George Burgess
Brass Phrenology Head used by George Burgess

Phrenology Books by George Burgess

George Burgess wrote at least two books on phrenology in the 1860s, which he used in his trade to map out the client's character in detail; with each customer getting their own completed copy.

Below are a few sample pages from his books.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Signs of Character in the HeadThe Value of PhrenologyPhysiognomy
Signs of Character in the Head
Signs of Character in the Head
The Value of Phrenology
The Value of Phrenology

Learn More About Phrenology

From the Phrenology Books Written by George Burgess

Below is the link to my genealogy website where I've republished (in full) the two Phrenology books by my great-great grandfather.

Phrenology in Bristol

By Professor G Rudd

A few years after George Burgess retired in 1901, Professor G Rudd gave my great-grand father (William Edward Baglin 1839-1908) a Phrenology reading before his marriage to Gertrude Rosa Burgess (one of the daughters of George Burgess) in 1905; Gertrude Burgess being my great grandmother.

To my knowledge little is known about Professor G Rudd but he obviously knew George Burgess and by 1928 when he did a Phrenology reading for my grandfather (Edward William Burgess Baglin 1906-1969) he was practicing Phrenology in the Arcades, Bristol; so maybe when George Burgess retired he sold his business to Professor G Rudd!

Visit my genealogy website for further reading on this subject.

Phrenology book by Prof Rudd
Phrenology book by Prof Rudd

Victorian Humour

My great-great grandfather (a phrenologist) kept a Victorian scrapbook of newspaper articles (which I inherited), and in having a British sense of humour quite naturally stuck the following snippet into his scrapbook:-

  • PHRENOLOGIST (examining head): “You are a poet, my dear sir.”
  • Subject: “Never wrote a line of poetry in my life.”
  • Phrenologist: “Incredible! My dear sir, you should try your hand. You have taste, love of beauty, poetry, and art.”
  • Subject: “How do you know?”
  • Phrenologist: “Oh, easily enough. This bump over the left temple reveals it. It is an open book to the one who – “
  • Subject (checking him): “And the most remarkable thing about it is that the bump appeared only yesterday.”
  • Phrenologist: “Phenomenal! I cannot account for it.”

humorous phrenology newspaper article
humorous phrenology newspaper article

Had You Heard of Phrenology Before Reading This Article?

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Arthur Russ


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