The Phrenology Collections
Why do we act the way we do? What determines the patterns of our behavior and personality? These are questions to which every generation seeks answers. Today, psychology and, increasingly, genetics are used to understand and explain the vicissitudes of human nature, but these are only just the latest in a long string of explanatory models. During the 19th century, phrenology-the study of human cranial structures and their association with personality, character, and behavior-provided another, and a popular, explanation. More than just reading bumps on the head, phrenology had a complex theoretical framework and a long history of development. At its peak, the movement fostered intense interest among scientists and the public in Boston, the United States, and throughout the world. Although its heyday has long passed, the movement endured into the 20th century, and some of its vestiges can still be found today.
Both the Boston Medical Library and the Harvard Medical Library have long had strong collections of the works of Franz Joseph Gall, the founder of phrenology, as well as other published works on the subject, and the Boston Medical Library has held a collection of the letters of Nahum Capen, of the phrenological publishing firm of Marsh, Capen, and Lyon, since 1884. This impressive array of source materials was enhanced in 1970 by the acquisition of a cache of letters and manuscripts of Gall's one-time assistant, noted phrenologist J. G. Spurzheim, documenting his American tour and death in 1832, and a rich assortment of pamphlets, advertisements, minute books, and manuscript items from the British Phrenological Society. The Society was active until 1967 and these records-formerly in the possession of its secretary and past-president, James W. Marshall-document developments in phrenology into the middle of the twentieth century and testify to the enduring fascination of this peculiar study of skulls.
Complementing the library collections is the Boston Phrenological Society's collection of casts and skulls housed in the Warren Anatomical Museum. All of these resources make the Countway Library an extraordinary repository for the history of the phrenology movement.