The impact of phrenology in Edinburgh, past, present and future


Phrenology was introduced in the 18th century, with Edinburgh playing a prominent role, as the latest advancement in the field of neurology. Its central idea was that the brain is compartmentalized, with every function that can be attributed to the brain localized to a particular part. Phrenologists argued that the parts of the brain corresponding to functions that an individual used a great deal would grow larger and those functions which were neglected would shrink. They further argued that the skull overlying the lumpy parts of the brain would bulge to accommodate the hypertrophied brain tissue underneath. By measuring those bumps, they tried to infer which parts of the brain are enlarged and which characteristics dominate in an individual.
Professor Matthew Kaufman (1942-2013), our former Professor of Anatomy at Edinburgh University, was highly distinguished not only for his contributions to the discovery of embryonic stem cells and his Atlas of Mouse Development, but also for his study of the history of medicine. His historical work was based heavily on his re-discovery and extensive examination of many items held in the Anatomical Museum at Edinburgh Medical School. Over a dozen years ago, he handed over to me the chairmanship of The Henderson Trust, an independent organization that had evolved in the 19th century from the Edinburgh Phrenological Society, a previously wealthy and active society designed to promote understanding of phrenology. This prompted my interest to learn more about the fascinating collection, why it was made, what it contains and how it might be exploited in the future.