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Vukin, M. C. (1999). Phrenology in America. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 2. Available online at http://www.webclearinghouse.net/volume/. Retrieved September 26, 2023 .

Phrenology in America

Sponsored by: JOHN KRANTZ (krantzj@hanover.edu)
Franz Joseph Gall invented what is known as phrenology in 1796 after making some simple observations of his classmates. This theory that claimed the ability to describe most aspects of a person`s personality from the bumps on their head had a variety of effects in many places. The place where it was received most enthusiastically was America during the first half of the 19th century, during Jacksonian democray. The enthusiasm Americans felt for phrenology at this time was because society benefited from a science that encouraged and supported common sense and reason, characteristics of Jacksonian Democracy. By the middle of the 19th century phrenology lost its appeal in America. The main reason phrenology lost its appeal was because the common man grew skeptical of its validity. At the beginning of phrenology`s popularity no information was provided with which to look at the science critically. It is important to critically consider the presentation of science in today`s society as well because it is also commonly presented with no information to support broad conclusion that are made.

Phrenology is the doctrine that proposes that psychological traits of personality, intellect, temperament, and character are ascertainable from analysis of the protrusions and depressions in the skull (Lachman, 1963). It was an idea created by Franz Joseph Gall in 1796. Gall referred to his new idea in English as cranioscopy. It was only later that Johanne Gaspar Spurzheim, one of Gall`s students, labeled the idea "phrenology". The term "phrenology" has come to be so closely identified with Gall that it will be used here to denote his general theory. Gall`s idea was spurred when he noticed that classmates who could memorize great amounts of information with relative ease seemed to have prominent eyes and large foreheads (Morse, 1997). He speculated that other internal qualities, besides memory, might be indicated by an external feature also. According to the theory, traits were located in particular regions of the brain; enlargements or depressions in the brain in particular areas meant a greater than normal or less than normal quantity of the given trait. It was assumed that the external contour of the skull accurately reflected the external contour of the brain where traits were localized. Cooter (1989) interprets Gall`s theory of phrenology as both a theory of the brain and a science of character. Cooter asserts that there were five major parts to his theory. The first was simply that the brain was the organ of the mind. The second was that the brain was not a homogeneous unity, but a compilation of mental organs with specific functions. The third was that the organs were topographically localized. The fourth was that the relative size of any one of the organs could be taken as a measure of that organ`s power over the person`s behavior. The fifth and final part of Gall`s theory was that external craniological features could be used to diagnose the internal state of the mental faculties. All of these parts were based on observations Gall made.Depending on which resource is consulted, there could be anywhere from 27 to 38 regions on the skull indicative of the organs of the brain, each of which stood for a different personality characteristic. Figure 1 shows a typical phrenological configuration. Within those who believed the above theory, some further theorized that the different regions of the brain would grow or shrink with usage, just as muscles will grow larger when exercised (Novella, 1997). If a certain part of the brain grew from increased use, the skull covering that part of the brain would bulge out to make room for the expanded brain tissue. With these assumptions, the bumps on one`s skull could be felt and the abilities and personality traits of a person could be assessed. Spurzheim put a more metaphysical and philosophical spin on Gall`s concept when he named it phrenology, meaning "science of the mind" (Spitz, 1998). To Spurzheim phrenology was the science that could tell people what they are and why exactly they are who they are. Spitz (1998) writes that for Spurzheim, The premise of phrenology was to use the methods to identify individuals who stood out at both poles of society: those with a propensity for making important social contributions and those with a greater than normal tendency for evil. The former were to be encouraged, nurtured, and developed in order to maximize their potential for good. The latter needed to be curbed and segregated to protect society from their predisposition to be harmful to others.The science was perceived to provide an accurate reflection of a person`s temperament, and potential. This ideal is reflected in the way phrenology was treated within America. It did take on many social roles, from medicine to education where a person did have the ability to exercise a given organ and change that quality of him or herself. Phrenology played a large role in American history, but it also faced a large amount of criticism.Phrenology has met up with a good deal of criticism since it was proposed, but over time it has also been credited for certain things. Fancher (1988) states that it was a, "curious mixture, combining some keen observations and insights with an inappropriate scientific procedure." Most criticism is aimed at the poor methods used by phrenologists and the tangent from standard scientific procedure in investigating. Pierre Flourens was appalled by the shoddy methods of phrenologists and was determined to study the functions of the brain strictly by experiment (Fancher, 1988). The specific technique that Flourens used was ablation, the surgical removal of certain small parts of the brain. He did not develop this technique, but did refine it. His predecessors, who used the technique, failed to obtain conclusive results for two reasons. They did not cleanly excise brain regions, but merely pinched, pricked, or compressed parts of the brain. It was difficult to tell which region was injured by these procedures. The second reason was that his predecessors were not skilled surgeons. They were unable to tell if their subjects` behavior was due to the alteration of the brain or the trauma involved with the surgery. (Fancher, 1988). Flourens, however, was a very skilled surgeon and used ablation to cleanly excise certain slices from the brain. He ablated precisely determined portions of bird, rabbit, and dog brains. Flourens then observed the behavior of his subject. Since, for obvious ethical reasons, he was only able to use animals (birds, rabbits, and dogs) he could not test uniquely human faculties. He never tested or measured any behaviors until he nursed his subjects back to health after their operations. Flourens`s subjects did show a lowering of all functions, not just one function as Gall`s theory would have predicted. Gall asserted that he wiped out many organs all at once when he ablated part of the brain. This explained the general lowering of all functions in many of his subjects. The strongest argument was put forth by Flourens, however. He observed, in his youngest subjects, recovery of lost functions with the passage of time. Despite attacks from Flourens and others, phrenology held its appeal to scientists in Europe who would bring the idea across to America where it would flourish.

Many physicians from America traveled to Europe and found the new science interesting enough to bring back. In addition, physicians from Europe brought the ideas over to America. Spurzheim was a key figure in this regard. He came to New York in 1832 to lecture, but died shortly after (Spitz, 1998). In Spurzheim`s short time in America, however, he converted thousands while lecturing at many places including Harvard and Yale. Ralph Waldo Emerson called him, "one of the world`s greatest minds" (Morse, 1997). Once phrenology was in the country, Charles Caldwell, who had learned about phrenology in Paris from Spurzheim, played a strong role in spreading the theory through his writings and lectures (Fink, 1938). According to Davies (1955), Caldwell was often referred to as the "American Spurzheim."

Other nations and cultures responded to phrenology in different ways than America did. In France the idea of phrenology was rejected all together. This was supposedly because Napolean was unsatisfied with his reading (Sabbatini, 1997). Even in his own country, Austria, Gall was prohibited from promoting his theory because of disapproval by church authorities (Morse, 1997). In the history of South Africa one can see one of the clearest uses of phrenology to benefit a nation by discriminating against another nation. It was used as a racial science with distinctly predatory intentions. The British engaged in wars with the native tribes in the country believing that they were an inferior race. They justified this belief with phrenology. The South African natives were viewed as inferior and incapable of change. This fixed deterministic view of people was not part of the phrenology that developed in the United States. It was to Britain`s advantage though to view people in this way in order to justify the slaughter of so many people for their land and resources (Bank, 1996). The Dutch were also down in South Africa, but they did not adopt the same practices as the British. The barbaric practices seemed to hold little appeal for the Dutch who had less experience with frontline frontier conflict. It has also been asserted that phrenology held the Dutch as lower level human beings than many other nationalities (Bank, 1996). This scientific racism was also popular in similar situations in New Zealand and Australia (Bank, 1996).Phrenology probably did not flourish like it did in America in other countries for several reasons. One reason, as applied to America`s unique situation, was that many other countries had national religions that would have contracted many assumptions held by phrenology. Also the historical context of other nations was not like America`s during the Jacksonian Era in terms of its focus on the individual, common sense, and his or her perfectibility. In essence, phrenology most likely did not flourish anywhere else, like it did in America, because the ingredients that made it flourish in America were not present.

The seemingly limited exposure of America to phrenology was enough to spark an interest. When phrenology was brought to America, the reactions of people from area to area varied considerably. The existing moral, religious, and cultural outlooks, social conflicts, professional ambitions, and personal animosities all determined the reaction people had to phrenology (McCandless, 1992). These stances went beyond the judgement of phrenology`s scientific validity. For many individuals in America, moral and religious beliefs prevented agreement, but enough people supported the idea for it to survive and thrive in its new environment (McCandless, 1992). Certainly phrenology appealed to many with professional ambitions who saw "great commercial possibilities" like Orson and Lorenzo Fowler (McCandless, 1992). Many who saw these possibilities truly believed in what phrenology predicted and in the process saw they could make money while practicing phrenology. The appeal of phrenology was first to the intellectuals, but as time passed it became more integrated into popular culture (McCandless, 1992). The logical and easy to learn structure of the phrenological theory quickly captured the imagination of thousands of followers (Sabbatini, 1997). The American people were attracted to phrenology by both the practical and entertainment benefits that it offered. Certainly many also bought into phrenology to justify or explain their own social conflicts, cultural outlooks (as with the British in South Africa), and personal animosities. Phrenology was to have a great deal of influence in social interactions. Phrenology was once used to support the abolition of slavery. McCandless (1992) writes that phrenology served to confirm the view that the colored man has more talent than is attributed to him and that his culture will soon develop. According to Cooter (1989), the new information provided by phrenology gave people "a `scientific` justification for real and idealized social relations with women, savages, and the politically recalcitrant working class, and with an anthropological basis for the further investigation and comprehension of these categories." Phrenology moved to America from Europe through diverse routes. Though it was challenged everywhere, phrenology flourished in America in a way that it did not in any other country because of the unique stage of development that it was in, as a country. McCandless (1992) states that, It was not just fickleness or cultural infantilism that led Americans to embrace and then abandon enthusiasms like phrenology and mesmerism. The attraction of these movements derived in large part from their appeal to the democratic utopianism of the Jacksonian Era, with its faith in the ultimate perfectibility of American society. In Andrew Jackson`s first presidential address to congress in 1829 he emphasizes three themes, one of which is "rule by the will of the people." He also addressed the need for a, "trust in the will of a virtuous and competent people." Jackson assumed that the best way to serve the general interest of society was to have a simple and limited government which would leave each individual free to pursue his or her own self interest (Boorstin, 1995). These ideas support the idea that this time period empowered individuals and the phrenology, which was accepted in America, did allow for the perfectibility of individuals. The time period celebrated the individual who did take charge of his or her own future and perfection. The unique way in which phrenology flourished in America is evident by the popularization of "modern science" within both the upper and lower classes (Davies, 1955). Phrenology, mesmerism, and hydropathy were among the non-traditional sciences that gained popularity during this time. In other countries, phrenology had been semi-popularized for a short time within the upper classes. Royalty would have their heads read, but the new science was never marketed towards the lower class because of the particular social environments that did not call for ideals that phrenology represented. The popularization of "modern science" did not occur, to the degree that it did in America, in any other country. The lack of a national religion dictated by the government, and the current state of medicine are several characteristics of this time period that motivated many to accept and adopt phrenology and other non-traditional sciences. America did not have a national religion dictated by the government. This meant that anyone who was not affiliated with a religion that disagreed with some aspect of phrenology, was "eligible" to buy into phrenology. In other countries, the prescribed religion of the government went against phrenology before it would have had time to be spread around. The religions dictated through the governments and laws and edicts that they made. Any other accepted religions that might support phrenology were de-emphasized. In America, freedom of religion, free will, and common sense were dominant themes of this time. The current level of quality within traditional medicine also motivated American citizens to consider alternatives (McDonnell, 1999). McDonnell writes;Despite relying on medical services, Americans saw their health steadily deteriorate. Health hazards and the absence of proper sanitation, physicians` lack of accurate medical knowledge, and the abundance of quacks and domestic "self-help" books all contributed to the fragile existence of early nineteenth century Americans. Floyd (1999) writes that surgery was a last resort because it was often fatal and was always painful. She writes, "It was performed with no regard for cleanliness, doctors wore filthy coats—often directly from the autopsy room to the operating room—with pride." This practice spread deadly infections like septicemia or gangrene. The public also had a poor perception of medicine because of proprietary medical schools and their common practice of grave robbing to obtain dissection specimens (Floyd, 1999). The public came to believe that anyone could cure the ill if they applied the common-sense principles promoted by quackery (phrenology, mesmerism, hydropathy) doctors. These ideas made sense to many members of society. Because of this, phrenology and other non-traditional methods were welcome alternatives as ways for Americans to feel they were capable of improvement and treatable without having to deal with the current way medicine was taught, practiced, and viewed. These actions support the ideals reflected in Jacksonian Democracy.

Lecturers like Caldwell and Spurzheim were responsible for the spread phrenology throughout America. Gradually more and more people saw the many possibilities of phrenology and added themselves to the group of lecturers and phrenologists (Davies, 1955). Like most groups that get very large, differences in perspective caused rifts. The large group in support of phrenology did eventually split into at least two groups; the theoretical phrenologists and the practical phrenologists were the main subgroups. The theoretical phrenologists were against the practical use of phrenology because they feared the accessibility of the new science would degrade the respect it had earned from the upper class intellectuals (Davies, 1955). The practical phrenologists were responsible for the high accessibility of phrenology. They were also the ones making a profit from phrenology. With the popularization of phrenology, it is no surprise that it disseminated into many facets of American culture including; marriage, crime, insanity, education, literature, and health (Davies, 1955). Orson and Lorenzo Fowler were the most popular and well-known practical phrenologists in America during the early to mid 19th century (Spitz, 1998). In college Orson had been studying for the ministry and was ready to attend the seminary the following fall term, but he was swayed to a different ministry after spending time with a friend who began practicing phrenology. He convinced his brother, Lorenzo, to join him in a lecture tour through New York State. They both met enthusiastic reception and continued their lectures. This began their careers of writing, lecturing, and giving examinations (Davies, 1955). The Fowlers were practical phrenologists and were looked at negatively by their theoretical phrenologist cousins. One well known phrenological journal compared practical phrenologists to "bankrupt rope dancers" who tailored their readings to the wealth of their clients. Fowler`s defense against these attacks was that his method was the only one that allowed the new science to be domesticated in America (Davies, 1955). One other member of the practical phrenologists reported, after traveling to France, that phrenology was dead there. He said this was so because nobody besides doctors and scientists were interested in experimenting with it, and only as a way of investigating the structure and function of the brain (Davies, 1955). Without practical phrenologists like the Fowlers, phrenology would not have reached the diverse audience that it did. One practical use of phrenology was in an early form of marriage counseling. The Fowlers released a book in 1848 that described the history, ceremonies, and importances of marriage in American society. Towards the end of the book, Fowler relates phrenology to marriage. At one point he writes that, "they [phrenology and physiology] like the pilot, will serve as a true guide on the sea of matrimonial life" (Fowler, 1848). He writes that phrenology allows one to know the faculties of their mind and their partner`s mind, and the combinations which "produce harmony" between the two partners (Fowler, 1848). One role that phrenology played a large part in was insanity (which is currently referred to as mental health). Phrenologists took a strong interest in the insane because they represented subjects with overdeveloped faculties. These pathological exaggerations made the organs easier to identify. Studying the abnormal made the normal easier to understand (Davies, 1955). Phrenology was humane and because of this, the insane were considered unfortunate and should be helped to reform. Up to this point, the insane were viewed as possessed by evil spirits and that had regressed to the animal level (Davies, 1955). This explains the high amount of inhumane treatment that the insane faced at this time. Phrenology proposed an alternative view though that was rationalistic, plausible, consistent, and made sense though. Phrenology echoed the new reform ideas of many others who wanted to change the current way of treating the mentally ill. Phrenologists` explanation of insanity indicated that it was a disease of the brain, not a visitation from the Lord (Davies, 1955). Phrenologists asserted that the brain could be damaged by three things; impact injuries like concussions and fractures, sympathetic sources, and idiopathic sources (Davies, 1955). Sympathetic sources of injury were diseases residing in other parts of the brain, but influencing the brain. Idiopathic sources were the most common and were violations of the "natural laws" which implied the need for a balance of everything as not to over-develop an organ. Examples of these sources are too much study in childhood, not enough exercise, masturbation, liquor, tobacco, or too heavy a concentration on religion (Davies, 1955). Treatment of the cases varied with the case and shape of the skull. Every patient was first observed though, and it was decided what organs were at fault. From there several techniques were used. Sometimes "blood letting" with leaches around the organ at fault was used. More commonly was a course of following "the natural laws", the neglect of which brought on the disease (Davies, 1955). From the treatment of the insane, the treatment of criminals was a natural bridge of the phrenological theory. Criminals, like the insane, were considered undesirable citizens. They also were considered unfortunate and curable by phrenology, the "universal science" (Davies, 1955). At the time, the theory of penology was to apply severe penalties in the hopes of deterring would-be criminals from committing a crime. Phrenologists came to the conclusion though that most criminals lacked moral sense and would not be swayed by severe punishment. The problem, in the eyes of phrenologists, was a moral one. The prisoners needed a "moral hospital." The remedy at these "moral hospitals" would be giving the patient healthy surroundings, making him feel that his own comfort and security could be attained only by honest conduct (Davies, 1955). This type of system called for indeterminate sentences for the inmates. They would start out with restricted privileges and gradually receive more and more as a reformation became more manifest in their behavior (Davies, 1955). Phrenology was even extended into political issues, one of which was slavery. According to McCandless (1992), an article in the Fowlers` journal in 1846 stated that phrenology confirmed views that the colored man has a more natural talent than is generally ascribed to him, and which culture will soon develop. This view effected the way many viewed slavery and caused strong anti-slavery sentiments. At the same time these sentiments which contradicted southern pro-slavery arguments increased southern skepticism toward phrenology (McCandless, 1992). Phrenology was incorporated into art and literature as well. Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman were to writers who incorporated phrenological ideas into their writing because of their strong beliefs in the new science (Rosinsky, 1997). In Poe`s "The Fall of Usher", Usher is described as having an "inordinate expansion above the regions of the temple." This expansion is indicative of the organ of ideality (Davies, 1955). In 1850, Poe did a series of sketches of New York literary figures. He described one as having a "forehead [that] is broad, with prominent organs of Ideality" (Morse, 1997). In 1849, Whitman received a phrenological reading from the Fowler brothers. According to the findings of the new science, Whitman was a "marvelously developed man, being deficient in no aspect of the human mind and liberally endowed in most; his faults, such as they were, came from an overabundance of sheer humanity" (Davies, 1955). Whitman quickly adopted phrenology as a scientific interpretation of human character from which to base his poetry. Many of his poems exemplify phrenological principles including a general spirit of individualism, optimism, and worship of the body (Davies, 1955). One line from a book of his asks the reader, "have you learn`d the phrenology . . . of the land?" (Morse, 1997).Towards the middle of the 19th century, phrenology became equated with forms of "quackery", most likely because of its abuses in the hands of "shady commercial entrepreneurs" who exploited the science for profit (Sabbatini, 1997). These entrepreneurs were those who marketed phrenology in a way that it was obvious that they did not stand behind what phrenology revealed. These people were obviously into phrenology because of the potential profit. Various devices were advertised, such as special hats and secret lotions to develop different organs of the brain. The only effect these items had was to make the public see phrenology as less of a science (Davies, 1955). These events made the public more skeptical and less receptive to the lectures from the theoretical phrenologists. Despite the prestige of the sponsors for lecturers, many lecture tours had to be canceled because of the public`s suspicion of charlatanism (Davies, 1955). Even after phrenology`s popularity really ended in America there were people who tried to make money off of it. In 1905 a machine called the "Psychograph" was patented. The first machine did not work, but eventually the Psycograph Company was started and ran from 1929 to 1937. The Psycograph was a device featured in department stores and theatre lobbies during the Great Depression. The success of the Psycograph lasted only until the mid-1930s because of increasing skepticism and declining income (McCoy, 1999). The manufacturers of the device knew that it was only a novelty, but led the public to believe that there was truth to what it indicated.

American citizens` disinterest in phrenology came about because of several factors including its non-science nature, conflicting moral beliefs, conflicting religious beliefs, and improvements within traditional medicine. Phrenology promoted radical views on scientific, medical, and social issues and also seemed to threaten existing intellectual leadership. Those who practiced phrenology also did not need any extensive training or knowledge in medicine or science (McCandless 1992). The procedure was applied clinically before the premises were properly tested and without clinical research to demonstrate its utility (Novella, 1997). There were also many inconsistencies that people found within the `science`. There were at least 27 independently varying faculties to work with, therefore a large number of combinations existed to explain any anomalous cases (Fancher, 1988). Morse (1997) writes that Mark Twain once recounted that the Fowlers had found on his skull "a cavity" where humor should be. John Quincy Adams is said to have wondered how two phrenologists could look each other in the eye without laughing (Morse, 1997). According to Fancher (1988) there were three crucial deficits in Gall`s theory;First, the assumption that the shape of the skull accurately reflects the underlying brain was false. Brain matter is soft and it did not make sense that the soft material could make an impression on the hard skull. Secondly, a defect lay in Gall`s choice of psychological units to describe differences in personality. His phrenological progam consisted of finding specific brain regions to correspond to the 27 different faculties. Thirdly, the 27 faculties Gall selected were completely arbitrary. Later phrenologists would label different faculties, probably because it was convenient for their populations.Attacks came from many different directions (Lachman, 1963). The intellectually skeptical pointed to the lack of evidence relating faculties to the skull prominences. The physiologists presented evidence arguing against the relationships proposed between external contour of the skull and function of particular brain regions. The philosophers objected to breaking the "mind" into faculties with distinct organs. This violated the principle of unity of mind that philosophers so strongly held on to. Ideas like this dictated that every part of the body and brain worked together to form the human being and did not individually or separate from the rest.Improvements in traditional medicine within American society also contributed to the decreased interest in phrenology. By the middle of the 19th century, medicine had entered an age of "improvement, progress, and reform." Medical institutions were emerging to provide a more scientific approach to medicine. Physicians were now engaged in clinical teaching and research in hospitals. New instruments were introduced to assist doctors in their work. New channels for communicating between physicians and for distributing medical information (journals, societies, etc.) were also established (McDonnell, 1999). In the end it seemed as though phrenology was only supported by many, chiefly non-medical, laymen. Phrenology resisted for a time the repeated onslaughts of the medical and theological professions, but finally gave in. In the end it fell into the hands of the pseudo-scientific and eventually of the quack (Fink, 1938).

A question one may want to consider is, did phrenology contribute at all to furthering scientific thought? According to Lachman (1963) it emphasized that the brain was the organ of the mind. Phrenology suggested localization of function in the brain. It called attention to the phenomena of individual differences as opposed to the notion of a generalized mind and it encourages the empirical method. Many others assert that phrenology did serve as the impetus for other new lines of thinking about brain localization. According to Fink (1938) it was the impetus to a new orientation of causation. Another thing to consider now is the presence of parallels to another Jacksonian Democracy or similar societal trend. Are the social conditions right now conducive to the acceptance of another "phrenology"? Certainly the conditions in America around the time of its introduction enhanced phrenology`s future. It seems as though more questions have been raised than answer provided in terms of the current state of things. One can leave and take this knowledge and be more skeptical of what is presented as fact in the world. It may just be that there are ideas that have no validity out there, but fit a need defined by American society. What can be learned from the way phrenology was incorporated into American culture and the reasons it was incorporated? It was a science that flourished and then lost popularity because of increased doubts in its credibility. The flourishing of what many consider a false science may not have occurred had the common man been able to critique it. In a democratic country like America, the science of Gall and Spurzheim was too esoteric to spread through the social ranks. If phrenology was to be made "common coin", it had to be debased; to become general knowledge it must have been simplified and made practical, to appeal to the common man it must have become common itself (Davies, 1955). What has been "debased" in today`s society for it to spread through different classes? To be debased something would have to appear simple and conclusive. This simple, debased way of presenting things is common in today`s media. One recent newspaper article stated that "scientists have developed a way to let paralyzed people use their brain waves to maneuver a ball on a computer screen and spell out messages" ("Paralyzed can use", 1999). This sentence was one third of the entire article. No names were given, no information about the method to the study, and no alternative explanations for the results were given. The article presented no information for the reader to critically think about what he or she was reading. This emphasizes the need for serious critical analysis of what is presented as fact in the popular media.

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