Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Phrenology - study of the structure of the skull to determine a person's character and mental capacity - was popular among the Victorians, who joined societies and attended lectures about what is now considered a pseudoscience. The truth is that different areas of the brain are responsible for different mental functions, but the strength of these areas cannot be assessed by feeling for protuberances on the skull. Phrenology was the impetus for a number of skull collections, though, many of which are still extant. Viennese physician Franz-Joseph Gall (1758-1828) and German physician Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1776-1832), who are credited with founding and promoting phrenology, both had collections of skulls and casts on which to demonstrate - and when Spurzheim died in Boston, his skull was retained by the Boston Phrenological Society. Joseph Hyrtl (1810-1894), an anatomist and phrenologist also from Vienna, sold his collection of 139 skulls to Philadelphia's Mütter Museum and they are still on display:
Hyrtl had labeled each skull with name and occupation (when known); date, place, and cause of death; and any pathologies. Today's scientists prize such documented collections because the bones can be used as references for estimating the age, gender, and other characteristics of undocumented skeletons like archaeological finds. So phrenologists did researchers a favor - in addition to drawing many cool diagrams, two of which are reproduced above.

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