The Edinburgh Phrenological Society was founded in 1820 by George Combe, an Edinburgh lawyer, with his physician brother Andrew Combe. The Edinburgh Society was the first and foremost phrenology grouping in Great Britain; more than forty phrenological societies followed in other parts of the British Isles. The Society’s influence was greatest over its first two decades but declined in the 1840s; the final meeting was recorded in 1870.
The central concept of phrenology is that the brain is the organ of the mind and that human behaviour can be usefully understood in broadly neuropsychological rather than philosophical or religious terms. Phrenologists discounted supernatural explanations and stressed the modularity of mind. The Edinburgh phrenologists acted as midwives to evolutionary theory and also inspired a renewed interest in psychiatric disorder and its moral treatment. Phrenology claimed to be scientific but is now regarded as a pseudoscience as its formal procedures did not conform to the usual standards of scientific method.
Edinburgh phrenologists included George and Andrew Combe; asylum doctor and reformer William A.F. Browne, father of James Crichton-Browne; Robert Chambers, author of the 1844 proto-Darwinian book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation; William Ballantyne Hodgson, economist and pioneer of women’s education; astronomer John Pringle Nichol; and botanist and evolutionary thinker Hewett Cottrell Watson. Charles Darwin, a medical student in Edinburgh in 1825–7, took part in phrenological discussions at the Plinian Society and returned to Edinburgh in 1838 when formulating his concepts concerning natural selection.
Phrenology emerged from the views of the medical doctor and scientific researcher Franz Joseph Gall in 18th-century Vienna. Gall suggested that facets of the mind corresponded to regions of the brain, and that it was possible to determine character traits by examining the shape of a person’s skull. This “craniological” aspect was greatly extended by his one-time disciple, Johann Spurzheim, who coined the term phrenology and saw it as a means of advancing society by social reform (improving the material conditions of human life).[unreliable medical source?]
In 1815, the Edinburgh Review published a hostile article by anatomist John Gordon, who called phrenology a “mixture of gross errors” and “extravagant absurdities”. In response, Spurzheim went to Edinburgh to take part in public debates and to perform brain dissections in public. Whilst he was received politely by the scientific and medical community there, many were troubled by the philosophical materialism inherent in phrenology. George Combe, a lawyer who had previously been skeptical, became a convert to phrenology after listening to Spurzheim’s commentary as he dissected a human brain.
Mental qualities are determined by the size, form and constitution of the brain and these are transmitted by hereditary descent….George Combe The Constitution of Man in relation to External Objects (1828)
The Edinburgh Phrenological Society was founded on 22 February 1820, by the Combe brothers with the support of the Evangelical minister David Welsh. The Society grew rapidly; in 1826, it had 120 members, an estimated one third of whom had a medical background. The Society acquired large numbers of phrenological artefacts, such as marked porcelain heads indicating the location of cerebral organs, and endocranial casts of individuals with unusual personalities. Their museum was located on Chambers Street.
Members published articles, gave lectures, and defended phrenology. Critics included philosopher Sir William Hamilton and the editor of the Edinburgh Review, Francis Jeffrey, Lord Jeffrey. The hostility of other critics, including Alexander Monro tertius, anatomy professor at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, actually added to the glamour of phrenological concepts. Some anti-religionists, including the anatomist Robert Knox and the evolutionist Robert Edmond Grant, while sympathetic to its philosophical materialism, rejected the unscientific nature of phrenology and did not embrace its speculative and reformist aspects.
In 1823, Andrew Combe addressed the Royal Medical Society in a debate, arguing that phrenology explained the intellectual and moral abilities of mankind. Both sides claimed victory after the lengthy debate, but the Medical Society refused to publish an account. This prompted the Edinburgh Phrenological Society to establish its own journal in 1824: The Phrenological Journal and Miscellany, later renamed Phrenological Journal and Magazine of Moral Science.
In the mid-1820s, a split emerged between the Christian phrenologists and Combe’s closer associates. Matters came to a head when Combe and his supporters passed a motion banning the discussion of theology in the Society, effectively silencing their critics. In response, David Welsh and other evangelical members left the Society.
In December 1826, the atheistic phrenologist William A.F. Browne caused a sensation at the university’s Plinian Society with an attack on the recently republished theories of Charles Bell concerning the expression of the human emotions. Bell held that human anatomy uniquely allowed the expression of the human moral self while Browne argued that there were no absolute distinctions between human and animal anatomy. Charles Darwin, then a 17-year-old student at the university, was there to listen. On 27 March 1827, Browne advanced phrenological theories concerning the human mind in terms of the Lamarckist evolution of the brain. This attracted the opposition of almost all members of the Plinian Society and, again, Darwin observed the ensuing outrage. In his private notebooks, including the M Notebook written ten years later, Darwin commented sympathetically on the views of the phrenologists.
George Combe published The Constitution of Man in 1828. It became an international bestseller in the 19th century, with around 350,000 copies sold. Almost a century later, psychiatrist Sir James Crichton-Browne said of the book: “The Constitution of Man on its first appearance was received in Edinburgh with an odium theologicum, analogous to that afterwards stirred up by the Vestiges of Creation and On The Origin of Species. It was denounced as an attack on faith and morals…. read today, it must be regarded as really rather more orthodox in its teaching than some of the lucubrations of the Dean of St Paul’s and the Bishop of Durham”.
Phrenologists from the Society applied their methods to the Burke and Hare murders in Edinburgh. Over the course of ten months in 1828, Burke and Hare murdered sixteen people and sold the bodies for dissection in the private anatomy schools. Burke was executed on 28 January 1829, while Hare turned King’s evidence; Burke was publicly dissected by Professor Monro the next day, and the phrenologists were permitted to examine his skull. Face masks of both men – a death-mask for Burke and a life-mask for Hare – form part of the Edinburgh phrenology collection. Scotswoman Agnes Sillars Hamilton made a living from phrenology travelling throughout Britain and Ireland. It was her son who left for Australia and published an account of Ned Kelly‘s skull.
Society co-founder and president Andrew Combe had two successful publications in the early 1830s: Observations on Mental Derangement in 1831 and Physiology applied to Health and Education in 1834. The latter, especially, sold well in Great Britain and the United States, with numerous editions and reprintings.
The Edinburgh Phrenological Society received a financial boost by the death of a wealthy supporter in 1832. William Ramsay Henderson left a large bequest to the Edinburgh Society to promote phrenology as it saw fit. The Henderson Trust enabled the society to publish an inexpensive edition of The Constitution of Man, which went on to become one of the best-selling books of the 19th century. However, despite the widespread interest in phrenology in the 1820s and 1830s, the Phrenological Journal always struggled to make a profit.