Head of the Class

The Bumpy Road From Phrenology to Public Schools


The history of public education in America begins, appropriately enough, with the Devil. In order that "that old deluder, Satan," might not keep from the youth of Massachusetts knowledge of the Scriptures, a law was passed in 1648 requiring each village in the state to appoint a teacher of reading and writing; each town was required to have a grammar school. The law, alas, did not rid the country of Satan; and 200 years later, Americans were still complaining that their children did not know how to read and write. The public schools of the early 1800s were little different from those built by the Puritans: ramshackle buildings, poorly heated, staffed by underqualified teachers, with textbooks that were, in some cases, from the 17th century. Critics complained that public education was "but a magnificent show"; reformers came up with educational ideals and searched the country for someone to pay for them. So, in 1865, a school inspector named John Hecker sent a tract called The Scientific Basis of Education to the superintendent of the New York City public schools. The superintendent's reply was favorable: "[Your] views," he wrote, "are in my judgment of the highest practical importance as well to teachers as pupils—based upon the soundest principles of physical, mental and moral science, and admitting of practical application by every teacher who will take the pains of acquainting himself or herself with the principles upon which they are founded." Hecker's views were based on a new science which was transforming the way Americans thought about themselves and their schools: phrenology.

illustration by Dusan Petricic


While at school in Baden, Germany, Franz Gall noted unhappily that his intelligence and originality did not always win him first place in his classes. Other students, who were able to learn great amounts of material by heart, rivaled and sometimes surpassed him. When Gall studied medicine at Vienna, he found himself once again among students who, although intellectually inferior, memorized and repeated information easily. Gall, vexed, observed that they had prominent eyes—and in retrospect it seemed his clever classmates in Baden also had unusually large eyes. He hypothesized that the two facts were connected: The bulge on the head corresponded to the ability to remember. Further observation suggested that people with a talent for music had their own bulge, as did painters, priests, and skilled mechanics. Every human ability seemed to swell the head in one place or another, which corresponded, Gall assumed, to a well-developed region of the brain. Some bumps were good, and others were bad: His work with mental patients, children, and criminals led Gall to identify a mental "organ of theft" and an "organ of murder," along with organs of self-esteem, cunning, theosophy, and love of offspring. In all, Gall discovered 26 cerebral organs—the alphabet, so to speak, in which a person's character was written.


In 1807, Gall delivered his first lectures in Paris. His system of cerebral organs became the latest fad; head-measuring replaced palm-reading in the salons of the capital. Gall had no use for parlor games; a scientist by temperament, he continued to dissect brains and to publish papers on their structure. Gall's student Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, on the other hand, was an evangelist for the new science. He named it phrenology (literally, "discourse of the mind"), and preached its doctrine everywhere—and toned it down a little, renaming the organ of murder "Destructiveness" and the organ of theft "Acquisitiveness." Soon Gall and Spurzheim were lecturing separately, although they remained on good terms. Gall stayed in Paris, where he died in 1828. Spurzheim proselytized in England and Scotland; in 1832, he sailed for America with a twofold mission: to see if American heads had any peculiarities worth studying, and to bring the science of phrenology to the new nation.

Spurzheim was warmly received in the New World—so warmly, in fact, that he died four months after his arrival, of a fever brought on by overwork. The size of his funeral suggests how much he had accomplished: 3000 Bostonians attended, including the entire Boston Medical Society; the Handel and Haydn Society sang an "Ode to Spurzheim," specially composed for the occasion. That night, a group of distinguished citizens, including the president of Harvard, formed the Boston Phrenological Society. They were not alone: Inspired, perhaps, by the "Ode," groups of phrenologically inclined men and women gathered in Baltimore, Washington, Providence—40 or 50 cities in all. They studied the work of Gall and Spurzheim, looked at brains, ordered casts of famous skulls, and visited the local prisons, to note the inmates' distended organs of Destructiveness. Despite these attractions, the societies they founded were on the whole short-lived. Once officers had been elected, rules established, and a few issues of a journal published, most Americans found they had little to contribute to the body of phrenological knowledge, and found its precepts, for instance that the brain should be dissected radially rather than laterally, of little practical use. When it came time for the members of the Cincinnati Phrenological Society to pay their dues, an English visitor reported, "the treasurer came punctually, but found himself alone."


Interest in the science was revived, however, by the practical phrenologists. These were experts who promised to tell you, by reading the shape of your head, what sort of job to take, what to look for in a spouse, even what to eat and how to spend your spare time. This was information the public would pay for. While scientific phrenology died quietly in the parlors of America's cities, itinerant head-readers roamed the nation, lecturing on the cerebral organs and measuring crania in public and in private. Chief among these practitioners were an ex-theology student named Orson Fowler and his brother Lorenzo, who made so much money from their lectures and analyses that they established an office on Nassau Street in New York City, which grew into a phrenological museum and cabinet for consultations. Soon the entire family had joined the business. Their sister Charlotte turned out to be such a good teacher that she was known as the Mother of Phrenology; Lorenzo's wife, Lydia, after a few years on Nassau Street, entered the Central Medical College in Pennsylvania; she was the second American woman to receive an M.D., and the first to hold a medical professorship.

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