Racism in Phrenology

Phrenology is a pseudoscience which asserted that measurements of skull contours determine a person's mental attributes. It was the idea that the brain was comprised of separate organs responsible for different aspects of personality such as benevolence. Phrenology was popular from its beginning in 1796 by German physician Franz Joseph Gall and well into the 20th century. This was despite its controversy within medical communities due to methodological flaws, where results could not be replicated, and its eventual discreditation in the 19th century. Phrenology was studied in the UK until the closure of British Phrenological Society in 1967. In neuroscience, it is still credited as an important historical discipline, as a misguided attempt at assigning different functions to different parts of the brain, which would have been more accurate if they assigned functions such as motor, cognition, and language rather than personality traits.


Edinburgh was the centre for phrenology, with Edinburgh Phrenological Society being founded by George Combe, a Scottish lawyer, in 1820. He is known for publishing The Constitution of Man in 1828, where he proposed in a Larmarckian manner that ‘mental qualities' determined by brain characteristics are inherited.


However, apart from the pseudoscience aspect of the discipline, phrenology also had other issues, such as emboldening racists. White people exploited phrenology to justify their racist view that Europeans were superior to other ‘races.’ By ranking skull sizes of different ethnicities, they ranked races from least to most evolved. One of many examples is Broussais, Gall’s contemporary, who claimed that Australian Aboriginal and Maori would never be as civilised as white people because their brains had no capacity to produce great art. Phrenological head and bust casts from criminals and indigenous people were used as evidence of European superiority. Dr Charles Caldwell, an American physician and slave-owner, made a phrenological head model of Africans in 1866 to show that they have enlarged organs of veneration and cautiousness, making them well-suited to slavery. It is important to note that scientific racism was contested by black Edinburgh University medical students at the time, such as Sierra Leonean James Africanus Beale Horton and Jamaican Theophilus Scholes. Frederick Douglass, a black abolitionist, called out phrenologists, saying ‘by making the enslaved character fit only for slavery, they excuse themselves for refusing to make the slave a freeman.’


Although some phrenologists were abolitionists, such as Combe, they still held views which propped up the opposing side, such as African temperaments being supposedly ‘docile' and ‘tameable.’ Horace Mann, President of Antioche College, Ohio, boasted only of hiring ‘anti-slavery men’ and ‘avowed phrenologists' as if being an abolitionist and phrenologist were compatible ideologies. The only difference was that while the pro-slavery phrenologists thought this temperament made Africans suited to slavery, abolitionists argued that society should protect Africans who are inherently weak and that any fear of Africans rebelling against their masters was nonsense. They ironically protected slaves from recourse after the slave rebellions in the US led to white people fearing their slaves. This perceived weakness of Africans was still racist and perpetuated the idea that white people were superior to Africans.

Even as phrenology died out from history, eugenicists who believe that white people are the superior race have grown their agenda in different ways. More recently, it was revealed that University College London secretly held a eugenics conference on campus annually. To some, it might come as shocking news that this is happening in the 21st century; but by examining the popularity of scientific racism that prolonged the life of phrenology at the height of the slave trade, it is not hard to see that racists will always love to consume racist ‘scientific' ideas to embolden their agenda.

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