The Fowler Brothers

Phrenology continued to flourish after Spurzheim's death, though it began to lose any connection to the scientific and anatomical research of Franz Joseph Gall, turning instead to the personality and perfectibility of mankind and the application of phrenology to society. Among the most influential leaders of the movement in America during the 19th century were two brothers, Orson Squire Fowler (1809-1887) and Lorenzo Niles Fowler (1811-1896), and their business associate, Samuel Roberts Wells (1820-1875).

The Fowler brothers began as itinerant phrenologists, lecturing and reading heads throughout New England. After a brief practice in Washington, O. S. Fowler went to Philadelphia in 1838 and opened an office called the Phrenological Museum where he began publication of the American Phrenological Journal. The business moved to New York City in 1842, where the two brothers, their sister, Charlotte, and Lorenzo Fowler's wife, Lydia, became notable phrenologists, and the Phrenological Cabinet, displaying casts, skulls, charts, and other artifacts of the movement, became a popular fixture in the city. Branches of the Cabinet subsequently opened in Boston, at 142 Washington Street, and in Philadelphia. In 1843, Charlotte Fowler married a medical student, Samuel Roberts Wells, who then entered into partnership with his brothers-in-law, forming the publishing house of Fowler and Wells. The firm produced hundreds of titles and editions and, literally, thousands of copies of phrenological texts, and also sold charts, sets of cranial casts, and the famous symbolical heads. In addition to their mercantile ventures, the Fowlers were educators, training an army of phrenologists and supplying them with the tools of their trade.

The Fowlers promoted their business with the pithy slogan "Know thyself," implying that the self-knowledge derived from phrenology could lead to perfectibility through the development of the faculties. The brothers examined a wide variety of famous individuals of the day—including Walt Whitman, John Greenleaf Whittier, Clara Barton, and Mark Twain. The Fowlers' popular manual, The Illustrated Self-Instructor, claimed, "Self-knowledge, by teaching the laws and conditions of life and health, becomes the most efficacious means of prolonging the former and increasing the latter…. It also shows us our natural talents, capabilities, virtues, vices, strong and weak points… and develops the laws and conditions of human and personal virtue and moral perfection, as well as of vice, and how to avoid it. It is, therefore, the quintessence of all knowledge."

While Gall had conceived of phrenology as an anatomical science, and Spurzheim had continued to develop it along scientific lines, the Fowlers proceeded to simplify, promulgate, and popularize the movement. As part of their mission to improve the lot of mankind, the Fowlers began to tie phrenology to other social reform movements of the period, including temperance, vegetarianism, and sex education. In 1864, the American Phrenological Journal and Life Illustrated, a monthly Fowler and Wells publication, stated the journal "contains everything new and useful in regard to the Science of Man, physical, mental, and spiritual…. Other interests, such as new inventions, agriculture, commerce, mechanism, science, art, and literature, will receive attention. We feel it is a duty to participate in, and co-operate with, all the great movements for the 'emancipation of man' from error, ignorance, sin, want, intemperance, and spiritual darkness. Our work embraces all mankind and all interests." This crusading tone is emblematic of the ambition and excess which began to characterize the phrenological movement in America.