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Phrenological head, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1827

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Francis Gall (1758-1828) founded phrenology. This theory argued reading bumps and lumps of the skull, and therefore the brain, gave clues about a person’s personality and character. This plaster cast of an unknown man was made in July 1827 and signed ‘O’Neil’. Further writing is illegible. O’Neil was a maker based in Edinburgh who had published a catalogue in 1823 of phrenological heads for sale. This was just three years after the Phrenological Society was founded in Edinburgh in 1820. Phrenological heads were often cast from society figures, criminals and indigenous peoples. People carrying out consultations used them as reference guides. The cast may have been 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.