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Phrenological head of Brazilian tribesman, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1826

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Phrenology argued reading bumps and lumps of the skull, and therefore the brain, gave clues about a person’s personality and character. Phrenology was founded by Francis Gall (1758-1828). This is a plaster cast of an indigenous man from the Botocudos people of Brazil. Phrenological heads were often cast from society figures, criminals and indigenous peoples. People carrying out consultations used them as reference guides. It was made in Edinburgh on April 23 1826 by phrenological head maker O’Neil. He had published a catalogue in 1823 of phrenological heads for sale. This was three years after the Phrenological Society was founded in Edinburgh in 1820. This cast displays the lip and lobe ‘plugs’ worn by the Botocudos people. Victorians may have thought this both ‘savage’ and ‘exotic’. The cast was likely presented as evidence of the supposed ‘superiority’ of the European race. Phrenology became popular in the 1800s. However, it became controversial within medical circles. It was eventually dismissed by the medical profession as quackery. Phrenology was still studied in the UK until the British Phrenological Society closed in 1967.

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Glossary: phrenology

The study of the bumps on the outside of the skull in order to determine a person's character. It was based on the mistaken theory that the skull becomes modified according to the size of different parts of the brain.

Glossary: phrenological head

A representation of a human head, on which the phrenological faculties are illustrated. Phrenologists believed that one could tell personality traits by examining the bumps of the skull. The practice is now regarded as a pseudo-science.