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Phrenological chart, c. 1845.

Phrenological chart, c. 1845.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

German physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) studied anatomy in the late 1700s. He wanted to understand how the shape of the brain correlated to brain function. Gall analysed how brain damage in certain regions could cause mental problems such as difficulties in language use, or changes in the patient’s character. He also investigated how brain shape may be related to special talents. Gall claimed the brain contained 27 ‘inner senses’, and that their development determined the shape of the brain and ultimately the skull.

Gall and his follower J K Spurzheim developed a method of interpreting a person’s character by ‘reading’ the shape of the skull. Between 1805 and 1807 they lectured around Europe to promote it. The method became popular in England, where Gall’s supporter Thomas Forster named it ‘phrenology’ (science of the soul). People with no medical training used phrenology in the early 1800s as it was non-invasive and seemed a ‘scientific’ way to read people’s character and aptitudes. However, phrenology was criticised by medical experts as speculative and unreliable. Cartoonists portrayed Gall and his followers as credulous fools.

Phrenology heads remain popular. The technique came to be dismissed as a ’pseudo-science’, but it gave people without a medical background a way to understand themselves. Phrenologists’ ideas about localisation of brain function were proved correct by the work of Paul Broca. However, this localisation did not influence the shape of the skull.


Related links


F J Gall and J C Spurzheim, Anatomie et physiologie du systeme nerveux en general (1810)

J van Wyhe, Phrenology and the Origins of Victorian Scientific Naturalism (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004)

R Cooter (ed.), Phrenology in Europe and America (London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 2001)



A branch of medical science concerned with the structure of living organisms.