Physiognomy + Phrenology

Physiognomy, the practice of assessing a person’s character or personality from their outer appearance, and phrenology, the practice of assessing the shape and size of the cranium as an indication of charter and mental abilities dates back to the ancient Greeks but enjoyed a particular popular period in early 19th century Europe where it served as a pseudo-scientific practice in which correlation was mistaken for causation. An example of the concept of correlation vs. causation is the brain of Albert Einstein, whose parietal lobes were approximately 15% larger than the average human’s. Correlation would imply that the above-average size of the parietal lobes and Einstein’s intelligence are related. Causation would imply that everyone with larger-than-average parietal lobes would be as intelligent as Albert Einstein. As such, the practice of physiognomy and phrenology were used as a scientific basis for racial, ethnic, and sexual stereotyping which propped up white supremacy and British ethno-centrism.

La Verite des Sciences Natureles, Unknown, circa 1605

La Verite des Sciences Natureles (1605) is likely one of the first French monographs on the topic of physiognomy. This handwritten manuscript contains over 200 chapters of densely written text on the belief that physical characteristics influence an individual’s personality traits and temperament. Although the author is anonymous, they were also interested in astrology, architecture, mathematics, and chiromancy.

De Humana Physiognomonia by Giambattista della Porta (1535-1615), 1650

In De humana physiognomia, Giovanni Battista Della Porta, Italian scholar, polymath, playwright puts forth a case for physiognomy which likens human facial features to those of animals and claims these physical similarities also influence personality and behavior.

A System of Phrenology by George Combe (1836)

George Combe, Scottish lawyer and founder of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society (1820) and the Phrenological Journal, was intent on promoting phrenology internationally. Combe published A System of Phrenology as a primer on the subject. The volume contains writings which form a basis for scientific racism, claiming the superiority of white European males over a hierarchy of races.

The modern self-instructor in phrenology, physiology, and physiognomy, or, The peoples' hand-book of human nature, containing a view of the moral and theological bearing of the science of phrenology by Gustavus Cohen (1884)

The modern self-instructor in phrenology, physiology, and physiognomy (1884) demonstrates the late 19th century demand for phrenology instructional text by the European, English speaking public. This volume contains sketches of historical figures (Milton, Voltaire) and uses them as examples of physiognomy.

Plaster head exhibiting a phrenological chart [19th-20th cent]

Developed by German neuroanatomist and physiologist Franz Joseph Gall in the 18th century, phrenology charts divided the brain into sections Gall termed “fundamental facilities”. This interpretation of the localization of function theory, wherein each section of the brain is responsible for a different human function, accounted for characteristics including love of poetry, mechanical ability and even penchant for murder. Diagrams like this plaster cast of unknown origins would guide doctors in making diagnosis and proposing treatments for patient ailments and anguishes.