Today, an old book offers a parable of our times. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
So many people shave their heads these days. I wonder if we
aren't about to see a resurgence of the old practice of phrenology -- the art of
reading character in the contours of the human head. For, although science reveals
much more about the world we live in today, pseudoscience also remains alive and well.
Last month I found an old phrenology treatise by Samuel Wells. Wells, it seems,
was the heritor of the American school of phrenology. It'd been founded by three
siblings, Lorenzo, Orson, and Charlotte Fowler. Born in the early 1800s, they took
up phrenology while they were still in school. They began practicing it, and then
went on to form a large phrenology publishing house.
Samuel Wells was younger. He married Charlotte, six years his senior, as he finished
medical school. Then he left medicine to join their publishing industry. He and
Charlotte took over after the brothers died, and they ran things almost into the 20th century.
My book is an 1891 copy of How to Read Character: A New Illustrated Hand-book of
Phrenology and Physiognomy. The Fowler/Wells Company had first published it thirteen
years earlier. Who actually wrote it is a bit hard to tell. All we know is that Samuel
Wells filed for the copyright. So let's look inside.
Character, it says, is located in certain portions of the brain. These in turn dictate
the shape of the skull, depending upon how fully each is developed. Reading the shape
of the skull is an empirical science, we're told, built up on years of refinement. But
then we're given the data, and now the story becomes pretty frightening.
The data consist of the author's own drawings. Example: we're shown skulls of a male and
female (where the adjective white is implied but not stated) along with skulls identified
as Negro and American Indian. The features that Wells imagines for each are built into
Throughout the book, we find countless pairs of heads: A sketch of Emanuel Kant shows a
high protruding forehead. Next to him is a "Negro" with a low forehead. This is evidence
that people with Kant's forehead are highly reflective and those without it are not. The
head of Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz is supposed to exemplify
perception. Alas, that's the same Agassiz who argued that the Black race was the result of
separate creation by God.
The head of a beloved clergyman head displays the property of veneration. In contrast,
Wells offers the noted 18th-century ornithologist,
George Edwards, whose veneration
Wells finds wanting.
The harder Wells tries to prove his case, the clearer it is that his conclusions precede his
data. This old book, with its pages of manipulated information, reflects the world around us.
People everywhere are noisily "proving" political and religious beliefs with after-the-fact
evidence. And, in our fact-filled world, one can find fragmentary evidence in support of
almost any claim.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
How to Read Character: A New Illustrated Hand-Book of Phrenology and Physiognomy,
for Students and Examiners; with a Descriptive Chart. (New York, Fowler & Wells Co., Pubs., 1891).
For more on the history of phrenology, on Samuel Wells, and on the Fowler siblings, see, respectively,
To see Wells' phrenological chart, click on the thumbnail:
Wells explaining how to identify the virtue of veneration from the shape of a skull.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.