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Records of the Phrenological Society of Edinburgh

 Fonds — Multiple Containers
Identifier: Coll-227

Scope and Contents

The records of the Phrenological Society include, within boxes: cash book; catalogues of skull casts and other; papers of the Society; six notebooks including lecture titles, names of members and visitors who inspected the casts, and a 'memoir on the phrenology of Hindostan' read to the Society in 1823. The records also include a letter-book covering the period 1820-1840, minute-books for 1841-1870, and scrap-books of newspaper cuttings and printed items. Some material is stamped: Henderson Trust Museum.


  • 1820-1870


Biographical / Historical

The Phrenological Society of Edinburgh was formed on 22 February 1820. The first meeting of the Society was held at Hermitage Place, in Edinburgh, and was attended by: George Combe (1788-1858), Writer to the Signet; James Brownlee, Advocate; Andrew Combe, Surgeon; William Waddell, WS; Lindsay Mackersy (sic), Accountant; and, Rev. David Walsh. The Chairman of the first meeting was noted as George Combe and a moving spirit of the Society was Sir George Steuart Mackenzie of Coul, Baronet (1780-1848). The object of the Phrenological Society was 'to hear papers' and 'to discuss questions' connected with Phrenology. It would 'hold correspondence' with societies and individuals taking an interest in Phrenology, and collect and pursue facts and views that 'may improve and enlarge the boundaries of the Science'. Although Phrenology was a popular field of study well into the 20th century, it became discredited by scientific research. Phrenologists looked at the skull for indications of mental faculties and traits of character, and its principles were established by Franz-Joseph Gall (1758-1828), an Austrian, and by Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1776-1832) and George Combe. Gall had studied the heads of prisoners and inmates of lunatic asylums, and from his observations he deduced certain traits in the individuals, mapping out where 'murder' or 'theft' and so on were seated in the brain. Spurzheim and Combe went on to divide the scalp into regions where, for example, acquisitiveness, benevolence, combativeness, constructiveness, destructiveness, individuality, linguistic perception, self-esteem, wit and wonder etc were seated.


4 boxes

Custodial History

Some papers, books and specimens of the Phrenological Society of Edinburgh were given to the William Ramsay Henderson Trust (originally founded for the study of Phrenology) for its Museum. Books were then given to Edinburgh University Library, and specimens to the Anatomical Museum. In 1952, the papers were transferred to Professor J. C. Brash of the Department of Anatomy, Edinburgh University, before being given to the Library.

Related Materials

Lists of members of the Phrenological Society can be found in yearly volumes of The Phrenological Journal and Miscellany, and later series, at shelfmark Att.35.5., Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division. Also, at Gen. 1733/83 there is a letter relating to skulls from South Australia delivered to the Society's collection in 1854. There are also references to letters and a small group of papers of George Combe.
Records of the Phrenological Society of Edinburgh
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Repository Details

Part of the University of Edinburgh Library Heritage Collections Repository

Centre for Research Collections
University of Edinburgh Main Library
George Square
Edinburgh EH8 9LJ Scotland
+44(0)131 650 8379