Franz Joseph Gall and the Origins of Phrenology

The following is a guest post from Stanley Finger, professor emeritus in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Washington University. Finger earned his doctorate from Indiana University and has been on the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis since that time. He is also currently affiliated with the school’s History of Medicine Program. His focus has been on the history of the neurosciences, notably brain and behavior, electric fishes in the history of neurophysiology, Benjamin Franklin’s medicine, and how the neurosciences have long been reflected in the arts (e.g., painting, literature, and music). He has served as the editor of the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences for 20 years; was the first president of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences; and has received many honors, including the latter society’s lifetime achievement award in 2016. 

His new book with coauthor Paul Eling, “Franz Joseph Gall: Naturalist of the Mind, Visionary of the Brain” (Oxford University Press, 2019), is the first in-depth scientific biography of Franz Joseph Gall, the founder of phrenology.

Bilz, Friedrich Eduard (1842–1922): Das neue Naturheilverfahren (75. Jubiläumsausgabe), 1894. Public domain.

Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828), who was born in Germany and began to achieve fame in Vienna before settling in Paris, was always a controversial figure, as was his mind-skull-brain doctrine, later to be called phrenology. Although often portrayed a discredited buffoon, who believed he could assess a person’s strengths and weaknesses by measuring cranial bumps and depressions, he was, in fact, a serious physician-scientist, who strove to answer timely questions about the mind, brain, and behavior. In many ways, a remarkable thinker and researcher, many of his seminal ideas would become tenets of the modern behavioral and neurosciences.

Among other things, Gall was the first physician to promote publicly the idea of specialized cortical areas for diverse higher functions, while taking metaphysics out of his new science of mind. And although he obviously placed too much emphasis on “tell-tale” skull features (mistakenly believing that the cranium faithfully reflects the features of underlying brain areas), he fully understood the strength of “convergent operations,” i.e., conducting neuroanatomical, developmental, cross-species, gender-comparison, and brain-damage studies on both humans and animals when attempting to unravel the mysteries of brain organization.

Franz Joseph Gall leading a discussion on phrenology with five colleagues, among his extensive collection of skulls and model heads. Colored etching by T. Rowlandson, 1808. CC BY 4.0.

Thus, rather than looking upon Gall’s “organology” as one of science’s great mistakes, my co-author, Dutch historian Paul Eling, and I strove to provide a fresh look at the man and his doctrine. In “Franz Joseph Gall: Naturalist of the Mind, Visionary of the Brain” (Oxford University Press, 2019), we probed Gall’s motives, what was known about the brain when he began his research program, and the cultural challenges he faced. In so doing, we present Gall as an early-19th-century biologist, anthropologist, philosopher, and physician with an inquisitive mind and an especially challenging agenda — namely, how to account scientifically for the species and individual differences in behavior anyone could witness. In our book we address why Gall chose to study the mind and the brain, why he employed his various methods, why he relied so heavily on cranial features, and why he challenged dogma in ways that clearly upset many officials and authorities.

Our hope is that despite how Gall and his doctrine have been endlessly lampooned, our book will have the effect of promoting greater appreciation of the origins of phrenology and the sincerity of its founder. We also hope it will show how Gall wanted his “new science” to change thinking in many disciplines and fields. Indeed, as readers will discover, Gall’s phrenology, soon to taken up by others (e.g., Spurzheim, Combe), would impact not just medicine, anatomy, physiology, psychology, and philosophy, but even legal systems and how many authors (our own Mark Twain being a prime example) would now portray their characters in the arts. But perhaps the biggest surprise will be how many of Gall’s revolutionary ideas, though not his faulty craniology, are broadly accepted today.

Becker Rare Books has many texts relating to the history of phrenology, especially as it was practiced in the United States in the mid-19th century. Many of these monographs can be found in the H. Richard Tyler Collection, which documents the history of neurology and psychiatry. Becker Library’s rare books holdings can be searched through the library catalog.


Selected Readings

Cooter, R. (1984). The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science: Phrenology and the Organization of Consent in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Davis, J. D. Phrenology, Fad and Science: A 19th-Century American Crusade. New Haven, Yale University Press.

De Giustino, D. (1975). Conquest of Mind: Phrenology and Victorian Social Thought. London: Croom Helm.

Finger S, Eling P (2019): Franz Joseph Gall: Naturalist of the Mind, Visionary of the Brain. New York, Oxford University Press.

Gall F.J. 1822-25. Sur les Fonctions du Cerveau et sur Celles de Chacune de ses Parties (6 vols.). Paris, J.-B. Baillière.

Gall F. J. 1835. On the Functions of the Brain and Each of Its Parts: with Observations on the Possibility of Determining the Instincts, Propensities, and Talents, or the Moral and Intellectual Dispositions of Men and Animals, by the Configuration of the Brain and Head (6 vols.). N. Capen (ed.), W. Lewis (trans.). Boston, Marsh, Capen and Lyon.

Gall F. J., and Spurzheim. J.G. 1810-19. Anatomie et Physiologie du Système Nerveux en Général, et du Cerveau en Particulier (4 vols and an atlas). Paris, F. Schoell.

Van Wyhe, J. 2004, Phrenology and the Origins of Victorian Scientific Naturalism. Aldershot, Ashgate Publishing.