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13 Disgusting Facts About Phrenology, The Pseudoscience Used To Justify Racism

Updated September 21, 2020 29.5k views13 items

Phrenology was a popular way of diagnosing mental ailments during the 19th century. The practice involved reading the "bumps" on a person's head and measuring certain parts of their skull to determine personality traits. Practitioners used phrenology charts to determine exactly which parts of the brain they were examining through the skull. Phrenology is now considered a pseudoscience, having risen and fallen rapidly like many of the Victorian era healthcare fads, such as quack medical devices that contained radium

Surprisingly, though it has been disproved, phrenology led to many discoveries and advancements in psychiatric research and development. It was also abused as a science, as many people used it to justify racism and slavery. Read on to discover some of the craziest facts about phrenology and learn how people used to study skulls as a way of conducting a personality test. 

  • Franz Joseph Gall Created The Theory Of Phrenology

    Photo: Edward Hull / Wikimedia Commons

    Franz Joseph Gall was an Austrian doctor who came up with the foundational theories of phrenology in the early 19th century. He believed that the brain and the mind were one, and that the physical brain was made up of various structures that corresponded to different behaviors. He wasn't too far off on his theories about the physical structure of the brain, which does have separate sections that control different things, such as memory and muscle control. 

  • Johann Spurzheim Named The Science And Spread The Knowledge Around

    Photo: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

    Johann Spurz­heim was one of Gall's colleagues. He came up with the name "phrenology" and further refined the theories of phrenology by determining that the areas of the brain identified by Gall corresponded to personality traits, not behaviors. This led to the creation of phrenology charts that showed which section of the brain went with which personality trait. Spurzheim turned Gall's theories into something that could be practiced with a little training, which he then published under his own name and spread throughout Europe and North America. 

  • Some Employers Demanded A Reference From A Phrenologist Before They Hired Someone

    Photo: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

    The height of phrenology was from 1820 to 1840. During this twenty-year period, some employers would refuse to hire people unless they went to see a phrenologist first. Some businesses even had phrenology practitioners ready and waiting to check prospective employees. Employers wanted confirmation that a person had good character traits. Otherwise, how would they know if the person they hired was honest and reliable? 

  • Phrenology Was Used To Justify Slavery

    One popular practitioner of the pseudoscience, Charles Caldwell, was also a slave owner from Kentucky. He spent some time in Europe, where he learned about this new medical craze. When he returned to the States, he examined the skulls of his slaves and determined that they had overly large areas of "cautiousness" and "veneration," which meant that they were tamable and thus, ideal slaves. Caldwell argued that, according to their traits, Black people needed a master to tell them what to do, as they would never come up with any sense of direction on their own.