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What Is Phrenology?


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Phrenology (from Greek: phren, “mind”; and logos, “knowledge”) is a defunct field of study, once considered a science, in which the personality traits of a person were determined by “reading” bumps and fissures in the skull. Developed by German physician Franz Joseph Gall around 1800,[citation needed] the discipline was very popular in the 19th century. It was originally developed in 1796.[1] In 1843, François Magendie referred to phrenology as “a pseudo-science of the present day.”[2] Phrenological thinking was, however, influential in 19th-century psychiatry and modern neuroscience. [3]

Phrenology is based on the concept that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that certain brain areas have localized, specific functions or modules (see modularity of mind).[4] Phrenologists believed that the mind has a set of different mental faculties, with each particular faculty represented in a different area of the brain. These areas were said to be proportional to a person's propensities, and the importance of the given mental faculty. It was believed that the cranial bone conformed in order to accommodate the different sizes of these particular areas of the brain in different individuals, so that a person's capacity for a given personality trait could be determined simply by measuring the area of the skull that overlies the corresponding area of the brain.

In the history of personality theory, phrenology is considered to be an advance over the old medical theory of the four humours. However, it has no predictive power and is therefore dismissed as quackery by modern scientific discourse. Phrenology, which focuses on personality and character, should be distinguished from craniometry, which is the study of skull size, weight and shape, and physiognomy, the study of facial features. However, these disciplines have claimed the ability to predict personality traits or intelligence (in fields such as anthropology/ethnology).

Related Archaic Medical Theories


Name of theory


Time period


Measuring the bones of the skull to determine intelligence

Late 19th through early 20th centuries


Assessment of personality from outer appearance, especially the face

Ancient Greeks through Middle Ages


Good health results when four basic substances, humors, are in balance

Ancient Greeks through early 19th century


1895-Dictionary-Phrenolog.pngWhat’s Hot in Phrenology?


The attempt to locate faculties of personality within the head can be compared to the attempt of philosopher Aristotle of ancient Greece to localize anger in the liver. However, the first attempts to scientifically measure skull shape and its alleged relation to character were performed by the German physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828), who is considered the founding father of phrenology. Gall was one of the first to consider the brain to be the source of all mental activity.


In 1809 Gall began writing his greatest [5] work “The Anatomy and Physiology of the Nervous System in General, and of the Brain in Particular, with Observations upon the possibility of ascertaining the several Intellectual and Moral Dispositions of Man and Animal, by the configuration of their Heads.” It was not published until 1819. In the introduction to this main work, Gall makes this statement in regard to his doctrinal principles, which comprise the intellectual foundation of phrenology:


Through careful observation and extensive experimentation, Gall believed he had linked aspects of character, called faculties, to precise organs in the brain. Gall's most important collaborator was Johann Spurzheim (1776-1832), who successfully disseminated phrenology in the United Kingdom and the United States. He popularized the term phrenology.

Other significant authors include the Scottish brothers George Combe (1788-1858) and Andrew Combe (1797-1847). George Combe was the author of some of the most popular works on phrenology and mental hygiene, e.g., The Constitution of Man and Elements of Phrenology. The American brothers Lorenzo Niles Fowler (1811-1896) and Orson Squire Fowler (1809-1887) were leading phrenologists of their time. Orson, together with associates Samuel Wells and Nelson Sizer, ran the phrenological firm and publishing house Fowlers & Wells in New York City. Lorenzo spent much of his life in England where he set up the famous phrenological publishing house, L.N Fowler & Co., where he gained considerable fame with his phrenology head (a china head showing the phrenological faculties), which has become a symbol of the discipline.

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