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Access and use of electronic resources made available by the Becker Medical Library are governed by license agreements between the School of Medicine and publishers or third parties. Several of the electronic resources carry some restriction on their use. Access may be restricted by user location, number of concurrent users, and/or password.

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American Academy of Pediatrics Journals
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The cover of an 1874 issue of Samuel Wells’s Phrenological Journal and Life Illu          An image from Mrs. L. Miles’s 1835 Phrenology and the Moral Influence of Phrenol

Phrenology was a pseudoscience that sought to understand an individual’s character through surveying the skull. According to this method, different regions of the brain served different functions, and by locating these regions on the skull and examining the bumps and concavities, a phrenologist would be able to assess the individual’s faculties, or personality traits, morals, and intellect. Phrenology grew out of the work of late 18th century German anatomist Franz Joseph Gall, whose research on mental illness, brain injuries, and behavior led him to theorize that functions in the brain were localized and that because the skull’s shape reflects the brain’s, the skull may be read as evidence of an individual’s psychology and disposition.

Early interest in phrenology was in part sparked by the desire to use science to understand human nature and explain the relationship between the mind and character. It attracted followers because it tapped into the Victorian emphasis on self-improvement and spoke to the increasing importance of individuality and personal identity. One of the major problems with phrenology, however, was that practitioners tended to be more interested in confirming their beliefs than truly scientifically testing them, and often dismissed or ignored evidence that contradicted their ideas. As phrenology grew in popularity throughout Britain and the U.S. during the 19th century, it became more the province of self-proclaimed experts than medical men, and at best, was touted as a means of self-knowledge and opportunity for personal growth, and at worst, was used to gain fame and money or validate racist stereotypes.


This engraving from Combe’s Elements of Phrenology, "Names of the Phrenological           Also from Combe’s Elements of Phrenology, this illustration highlights tools of

Elements of Phrenology  by George Combe (1834)

George Combe was Britain’s foremost phrenologist. Educated in law at the University of Edinburgh, Combe initially was a skeptic of phrenology. After attending a series of lectures given by Gall’s student J.G. Spurzheim in 1816, however, Combe was not only convinced of its basic tenets, but decided to devote himself to the subject. He lectured on the topic throughout Britain, the U.S., and Germany, wrote several books, and founded the first phrenology association, Edinburgh Phrenological Society, with his brother, physician Andrew Combe. The Elements of Phrenology aims to provide a brief, accessible overview of the subject for a general readership. Combe’s book offers an early model of what many later phrenology texts would look like, providing detailed descriptions of the faculties (though Gall had identified 26, Combe described over 30), a discussion of how to conduct a phrenological exam, and a section that openly addressed and strove to refute critics by stressing the intellectual value and scientific nature of the method.


The front cover of a paperback copy of The Illustrated Self-Instructor in Phreno          This engraving from the Fowlers’s The Illustrated Self-Instructor in Phrenology

The Illustrated Self-Instructor in Phrenology and Physiology by O.S. and L.N. Fowler (1855)

In the U.S., the brothers Orson Squire and Lorenzo Niles Fowler were major forces in the field of phrenology, lecturing and writing extensively on the subject, giving readings, and establishing their own publishing company. (Lorenzo Niles Fowler also created the phrenological bust, a porcelain head mapped with the phrenological faculties that was a common tool of phrenologists.) While attending Amherst College, Orson Squire Fowler read and was inspired by the writings of Gall’s disciple J.G. Spurzheim and the British phrenologist George Combe. After graduating, Fowler and his brother established a phrenology office in New York. Fowler was a dedicated reformist, and his desire for social progress is evident in the book’s emphasis on promoting phrenology as a means of personal and collective happiness and success. This book wants to help readers “perfect their characters and improve children,” declaring that “to enlighten man is the way to reform and perfect him” (p. 1). In addition to its discussion of phrenology, the book also explores physiognomy – interpreting one’s character through facial features – and notes that other aspects of an individual may be used to read character, such as one’s walk, laugh, hair, and handshake.


This image from Wells’s How to Read Character is intended to illustrate the diff          This chart from Wells’s How to Read Character shows some of the results of a phr          This chart from Wells’s How to Read Character shows some of the results of a phr

How to Read Character by Samuel R. Wells (1883)

Samuel Wells, a partner of the Fowlers, wrote this phrenology how-to, which includes definitions of the faculties and examination instructions to help readers navigate the process and interpret the results.The text stresses the many practical, positive uses of phrenology, such as self-knowledge and improvement, and discusses how a phrenological examination can help individuals understand what career they are best suited for. It also notes the importance of using phrenology to understand others, placing a particular emphasis on marriage (and using character reading as a means of selecting a compatible wife), and education (including a guide to help teachers work with a wide variety of students). Typical of phrenology texts of the period, the handbook includes illustrations of well-known individuals who exemplify particular faculties, with commentary on the relationship between their physical attributes and personalities. The latter half of the book is comprised of an examination chart to be completed by a phrenologist and detailed summaries about each faculty including physiological conditions (such as circulation and digestion) and personal characteristics (such as spirituality and ideality).


This lithograph of a skull from Crania Americana, "From a Mound on the Upper Mis          Morton’s Crania Americana includes multiple tables emphasizing the scientific an

Crania Americana by Samuel George Morton (1839)

While many advocates of phrenology championed it as a means of self-knowledge, some used it and craniometry – the study of skull size – to validate xenophobic ideas and racist stereotypes. Samuel George Morton was an American physician whose most well-known work was Crania Americana, an ethnographical study that argued that the intelligence of a race could be determined by cranial capacity. With this approach Morton contended that light-skinned races, whom he observed as having the largest skulls, had the greatest intellectual capacity, while dark-skinned races, who had the smallest, had the least. For this work, Morton collected 147 skulls of Native Americans and indigenous peoples, many of which are depicted in full-page engravings in the book. The book also includes an essay by British phrenologist George Combe who corroborates Morton’s research although notes in his piece that, at the time of its writing, he had not yet had the opportunity to review it.

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