Phrens like these

 

andrew_combe_by_john_hutchison_1889
Andrew Combe

Andrew Combe was born in 1797… like most of his siblings he was at first reared in Corstorphine by a jolly, energetic tailor’s wife, who habitually took in so-called middle-class infants until they were weaned.” (Cosh, p226)

Some of my posts may have left you scratching your head. But have you had the actual shape of your head investigated? Strange as it may seem, this was once the “in thing”.

If the past is a foreign country, then its science is even more foreign to us. A lot of the “science” of the nineteenth century is either obsolete, or has become the pseudoscience of today. Phrenology is a classic example of this. It is perhaps less mystical than palmistry, and a good deal less smelly than reflexology, but it works on similar principles. It involves fondling the bumps on someone’s head, and determining someone’s personality from them.

Two of the most prominent phrenologists of their day were the brothers Andrew and George Combe.* George is the main player in this story, more so than Andrew, but had a similar upbringing. Their success was mixed to say the least.

Edinburgh: The Golden Age

william_hazlitt_portrait
The Head of Hazlitt

Having passed a significant birthday recently, I was very grateful to be given a number of good books as presents. One of these was Edinburgh: The Golden Age by Mary Cosh. It is one of those books which is so big you could probably crack walnuts with it. But I don’t intend to. I suspect it must have taken Cosh a decade or more to research it.

It is a real mine of information. The vast majority of it is accurate – although there does appear to be one or two mistakes, for example, Lady Nairne does not appear to have lived on Corstorphine Hill. But this is perhaps inevitable in a book of over a thousand pages. But if you can get hold of it, do. It is not a book one reads end to end

ETGA discusses the Combe family at length. Andrew and George were just two out of seventeen children, several of whom died, as was often the way at the turn of the nineteenth century. Their father, also called George, was a brewer. The family had relatives at Redheughs (South Gyle), and they were occasionally sent out of the city to live there during their holidays. (I don’t know where the “jolly, energetic tailor’s wife” of Corstorphine who raised Andrew lived precisely- or if she was connected to Redheughs herself.)

George appears to have been ill at ease as a child, and he was sent off to Frederick Street to be taught by George Hogarth – who was Charles Dickens’ father-in-law. Andrew seems to have had similar issues, being listless and when he was asked what he would do as an adult said “I’ll do naething“. These days a psychologist might attribute their problems to their harsh upbringing and education – but these were not unusual for middle class children of the period. Then in 1812, Andrew was sent to work with Henry Johnston, a surgeon on Princes Street.

George published Essay on Phrenology in 1819. His phrenology had attracted scorn from Francis, Lord Jeffrey of Craigcrook Castle, but also quite a lot of popular support. Amongst these was William Hazlitt. George describes Hazlitt as being “short and of a moderate thickness“, and the bumps on his head indicated:

Acquistiveness: large… Individuality, lower, large… the mouth speaks Combativeness and Destructiveness very strongly.”

During Hazlitt’s visit to Edinburgh, his wife was out wandering Corstorphine Hill, and other by-ways.  Mr and Mrs Hazlitt were divorced shortly afterwards, an extremely serious matter at the time.

Space does not permit me to describe the adventures of Andrew and George much further. Suffice to say, theirs was a colourful story, full of controversy, schisms and criticism. Jeffrey’s Edinburgh Review would not touch phrenology – but it would seem many others did, and well known people too.

The Rise and Fall of Phrenology

Like a lot of these things, it starts off from a reasonable enough premise. Certain medical conditions do causes changes in the skull shape. If you have ever known someone with Downs, for example, you will have noticed their facial features are quite distinctive. However, phrenology has taken this idea several steps further, into much more dubious and dangeous territories. One of its earliest applications was to try and determine who criminals were before they had committed any acts. We can see where that might lead. Straight down the road into eugenics.

George Combe was no stranger to this. In fact, on one occasion he examined the head of one David Haggart, a nineteen year old pickpocket and murderer from Dumfries. Combe claimed Haggart had developed “secretiveness” written on his skull. Haggart was later to be executed, but would write a moving autobiographical account, explaining how the murder had not been premeditated and that he was deeply sorry for it. News of Haggart’s account reached Blackwood’s Magazine and others, who used it to attack Combe.

Graphology is interesting by way of comparison. You may have noticed that when you are frantic, or even suffering from illnesses, that your handwriting changes. This basic principle has been extended into a complete system, which goes far beyond the original idea – whole personalities are supposedly deduced from the strokes of t’s and dots of i’s. However, graphology still enjoys some popularity – and is even used by certain employers – while phrenology has well and truly bitten the dust.

The demise of phrenology is almost total. It didn’t help that it was beloved of the Third Reich. in fact, Germany would send out phrenologists all over the world just to measure people’s heads. There is even old footage of Nazi scientists in Tibet, trying to determine how Aryan its ancient inhabitants were, using a pair of calipers. There are also Nazi propaganda posters of particular people with different shapes of head. Needless to say, anything closely related to Nazism is out of season.

Phrenology is not even particularly widespread in the New Age/Alternative Health communities. There are vague notions of something similar in traditional forms of Buddhism. But the average New Ager these days seems more interested in the colour of your aura than the shape of your head.

My head is an odd shape. I wonder what Messrs. Combe would have made of it.

Footnotes

* The Combe Brothers were, incidentally, related to Sarah Mair, whom I discussed earlier in this blog. The connection is through marriage, and the actress Sarah Siddons, who was an ancestor of Sarah Mair. Edinburgh’s High Society has frequently been a small society.

Picture credits

Photograph of Andrew Combe’s bust, by Stephencdickson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

References

  • Cosh, Mary Edinburgh: The Golden Age (2003)

External Links

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