The Lost Museum Archive

Horace Greeley Lectures on Phrenology and its Application, The New Yorker Vol 7, 1839.

Horace Greeley, a prominent newspaper publisher and social reformer, was an early convert to phrenology. He served on the board of the American Phrenological Society and printed George Combe's lectures on phrenology in their entirety in his New Yorker newspaper in 1833. Combe, a Scottish lawyer, toured the U.S. in 1838 - 39 and helped to popularize phrenology. By the 1840s, Combe’s emphasis on scientific research and study of the mind was eclipsed by the more practical phrenology movement led by Orson and Lorenzo Fowler.


WHEN a young man, I paid much attention to the prevailing theories of mental philosophy, frequently meeting a number of friends for the purpose of discussing the opinions of various metaphysical authors, hoping to obtain some practical views of human nature which would be serviceable in my intercourse with society and in the pursuit of my professional avocations. But all my study proved fruitless of beneficial results, and I ceased to pay attention to the metaphysicians. Hoping to obtain some more satisfactory notions of the mental functions from the physiologists, I attended the lectures of Dr. Barclay. All parts of the body were beautifully described, and their uses clearly explained, till he came to the brain; then was all dark and confused. He took that most important organ, cut it up in slices like a ham, confessing his ignorance of its functions and intimate structure. The physiologists satisfied me no better than the metaphysicians.

From the 49th No. of the Edinburgh Review I received my first information concerning the doctrines of Phrenology. Led away by the boldness of that piece of criticism, I regarded its doctrines as absurd, and its founders as charlatans. For twelve months ensuing I paid no attention to the subject; indeed, such was the unfavorable impression made on my mind by the Review, that when Dr. Spurzheim came to Edinburgh, I neglected to attend his first course of lectures, and should probably not have attended him at all, but for a fortunate circumstance. Coming out of court one day, my friend Mr. Brownlee invited me to attend a dissection of a brain, to be performed in his house by Dr. Spurzheim. I availed myself of this opportunity of comparing the method of Gall and Spurzhiem with that I had seen practiced by Dr. Barclay. Dr. Spurzheim did not slice it, but began at the medulla oblongata, and gradually unfolded the brain by following its structure. In ten minutes he demonstrated his anatomical views, and completely refuted the reviewer’s assertions.

I immediately commenced to attend the lectures of Dr. Spurzheim; and, independently of his physiological views, I found the explanations he gave of mental manifestations to be greatly superior to any with which I was acquainted. This was a great point gained, and I determined to pursue the study by an appeal to nature. Accordingly I purchased books, and sent to London for a large quantity of casts. They arrived in three large puncheons; and when taken out, they covered nearly the whole of my sitting-room floor. But when I saw them there, seemingly all alike, my heart sank within me, and I would gladly have stuck them into some hole to get rid of them. However, my friends heard of my collection, and I soon had a great many to visit me—some to examine, and some to quiz. I took a couple of them up to examine them, and soon found that heads apparently alike were in reality very dissimilar. This encouraged me. I pursued my examinations, both of the casts and the heads of living persons, and gradually became firmly convinced of the truth of the new science. The meetings at my room, to hear my explanations, became more and more numerous, and in 1819 I was prevailed on to take a room and give public lectures. Thus, without the slightest intention on my part, I became a lecturer on Phrenology three years after first attending to the subject.

Of this narrative I wish to make two applications: 1. I desire to show you that, in taking up the phrenological doctrines, I was not led away by enthusiasm. 2. I wish to impress on your minds that it is not by attending a course of lectures that you can become fully acquainted with Phrenology. I deem it impossible to make you so acquainted in a hundred lectures. I come here, not to wage war upon your opinions, but to invite your attention to an important subject; not to convince you of the truth of all the details of Phrenology, but to show you how to study and observe for yourselves. I admire not the mental character of those who have too great facility of belief; and Phrenology asks nothing but fair play and candid, scrutinizing investigation.

Phrenology means the philosophy of the human mind, as manifested through the medium of the brain. This philosophy, as you know, has been opposed with great violence; and the opposition has not yet ceased. In being so opposed, however, it merely shares the fate of all new truths. "In every society," says Professor Playfair, "there are some who think themselves interested to maintain things in the condition wherein they have found them. * * * Even in matters purely intellectual, and in which the abstract truths of arithmetic and geometry seem alone concerned, the prejudices, the selfishness, or the vanity of those who pursue them not unfrequently combine to resist improvement, and often engage no inconsiderable degree of talent in drawing back instead of pushing forward the machine of science. The introduction of things entirely new must often change the relative place of men engaged in scientific pursuits, and must oblige many, after descending from the stations they formerly occupied, to take a lower position in the scale of intellectual improvement. The enmity of such men, if they be not animated by a spirit of real candor and the love of truth, is likely to be directed against methods by which their vanity is mortified and their importance lessened." Dissertation, part II. p. 27.

It is well known that Harvey was treated with great contumely, and lost much of his practice, on account of his momentous discovery of the circulation of the blood. Professor Playfair, speaking of Newton’s discovery of the composition of light, says: "Though the discovery had every thing to recommend it which can arise from what is great, new and singular; though it was not a theory or system of opinions, but the generalization of facts made known by experiments; and though it was brought forward in a most simple and unpretending form, a host of enemies appeared, each eager to obtain the unfortunate preeminence of being first to attack conclusions which the unanimous voice of posterity was to confirm."

But the most striking instance, perhaps, of reckless and unprincipled opposition to newly discovered facts, was the opposition made to Galileo’s discovery of the satellites of Jupiter. This discovery was made simply from Galileo’s having invented a telescope by which bodies invisible to the naked eye were brought into view. One who violently opposed him he invited to look through the telescope, and see for himself. "No," said his adversary; "should I look through the telescope, I might perhaps see them; and then how could I maintain the view I now maintain?" This well illustrates the course pursued by the opponents of Phrenology. The truths of our science are sufficiently obvious; but many fiercely vituperate, yet refuse to look through the telescope.

Formerly Phrenology was much opposed by the religious portion of the community. In this country I have not witnessed much of this. Whenever the religious man places himself in opposition to natural truth, it is deeply to be regretted. All truth is from the same eternal source, whether it be the truth of Philosophy or the truth of Revelation. It is impossible to destroy a fact—it remains for ever; and in opposing it, religious men will always be ultimately found in the wrong position. That is, in God’s name they will be found to have opposed God’s truth and to have set variance between his word and his works.

I recollect that in my youth I was taught to repeat the catachism of Dr. Watts in which is this question—"How do you know you have a soul?"—which is thus answered—"Because there is something in me which thinks and feels, which the body cannot do." We are not conscious of the operation of the brain; but numerous facts with which we become acquainted by means of observation prove that without its agency we can neither think nor feel—that it is in short the organ of mind. In support of this proposition I may remark

  1. If the brain be not the organ of mind, its uses are unknown;
  2. It is better protected and better supplied with blood than any other part of the body;
  3. The nerves of the senses are all connected with the brain: it is the recipient of all their transmissions;
  4. The nerves of motion and the nerves of sensation are all connected with the brain: it is indeed the fountain of impulse and the reservoir of sensation;
  5. Certain substances, as opium or ardent spirits, disturb mental manifestations by operating on the brain;
  6. Fainting is a temporary loss of consciousness, occasioned by recession of blood from the brain.

But we have still more direct evidence. Richerand attended a woman whose brain had been laid bare. One day he pressed upon it a little more forcibly than usual, and the patient became silent and unconscious in the midst of a sentence. On removing his hand, consciousness immediately returned. As no pain was felt, he repeated the experiment several times, and always with the same result. Similar cases are related by many other writers. Sir Astley Cooper relates one of a seaman who had his skull fractured and brain compressed by a fall. For thirteen months he remained totally unconscious. On Sir Astley raising the skull, consciousness immediately returned. The last thing the man recollected was the object of his attention at the time of his fall.

But it may be asked how pressure on one part suspends all mental manifestations, if, as Phrenologists say, the brain consists of numerous organs? Let it be recollected that the brain is composed of a pulpy mass, having numerous blood vessels ramifying in its substance, and is enclosed in membranous sacs, the pia mater and the dura mater. It may be likened to an India rubber bag filled with fluid. Now it is a law of hydrostatics, that pressure on one part of a fluid affects all parts alike; consequently, when pressure is made on one part of the brain, all are equally affected.

"But," say objector, "How is it that the brain does not manifest structural derangement after death, when the individual has been afflicted with insanity?" This question was more confidently asked some years ago than now, more accurate investigations have shown that in the great majority of cases, such derangement is demonstrable; and if it be not always the case, this is not more remarkable than what takes place in other parts where there may be derangement or destruction of function without the anatomist being able to discover organic change. Thus some poisons destroy life without any structural alteration being visible in any part of the body.

Again, to show that the mind is independent of the body, it is said that the mind often fully manifests its faculties to the last moment in life, even in lingering disease. This is not true. It is important to distinguish between functional and organic derangement and simple weakness. Suppose I cut the muscles of my arm across, there would be organic derangement, completely incapacitating me from using my limb. Suppose I should bandage my arm tightly and keep it motionless for six months, at the end of that time I should be able to use it in the usual manner, but not with the usual force; the structure would remain the same, but the size and power would be greatly diminished. So when the brain is but secondarily affected, the mode of manifestation may remain unchanged to the end of some fatal malady, but the energy will be greatly lessened. Thus, in disease of the lungs, the brain merely suffers, like other parts, sympathetically and from badly exaggerated blood. At the commencement of the disease, the mind may act with its usual vigor. During the second month the patient thinks but little on subjects requiring mental energy; during the third month he chooses novels or light reading; during the fourth he prefers newspaper paragraphs, as requiring little continuous attention; and afterwards he ceases to read altogether, and does little more than answer simple questions; yet, because he answers these questions correctly, his mental manifestations are said to be unimpaired. No mistake can be greater.

Again, when a part is actively exercised, blood rushed to it with rapidity; and if the brain be the organ of mind, there should be to it a rush of blood during mental action; and this is found to be the fact, as many writers testify. Dr. Peirquin observed a patient in one of the hospitals of Montpelier, part of whose skull had been removed. In dreamless sleep the brain lay motionless within the cranium; when she was agitated by dreams, the brain was agitated and protruded; in dreams reported by herself to be vivid, the brain was more protruded, and still more so when she was awake and engaged in active thought or sprightly conversation.

Every act of the will, every flight of the imagination, every glow of affection, every effort of the understanding, is, in fact, manifested by means of the brain. And this proposition is acknowledged by the greater anatomists. "We cannot doubt," says Dr. Cullen, "that the operations of our intellect always depend upon certain motions taking place in the brain." Dr. Gregory remarks that "although memory, imagination and judgement appear to be so purely mental as to have no connection with the body, yet certain diseases which obstruct them prove that a certain state of the brain is necessary to their proper exercise, and that the brain is the primary organ of the internal powers." Blumenbach, Magan die, Arnott, nay, even the Edinburgh Review, in the 94th number, as well as numerous other authorities, give like testimony.

It is worthy of observation, that the general notion of the mind’s independence of the body is quite modern, the offspring in fact of philosophical theories sprung up chiefly since the days of Locke. Shakspeare [sic] and the older writers frequently speak of the brain as implying the mental functions, and to the present day the notions of the vulgar are more in accordance with nature than those of polite scholars of the old school. Thus a stupid person is called a numbskull, a thick head, or said to be addle-pated—badly furnished in the upper story: while a talented person is said to be strong headed, long-headed—to have plenty of brains; a madman is said to be wrong in the head—touched in the noddle. [sic]

We find, then, that reason, fact, the testimony of the best physiologists, and vulgar notions, all testify that the brain is the organ of mind.

And what does this proposition imply? Clearly that the state of the brain must greatly influence the mental manifestations, and that the perfection of those manifestations will depend on the perfection of the organ. How important, then, does the study of the brain become!


I beg to state that in Edenburgh my Phrenological course occupied fifty lectures of one hour each. Your time will not permit this. I therefore limit my lectures to sixteen. As in sixteen hours, however, I should be unable to do justice to the subject, I must beg your attendance on two hours of each evening. But, inasmuch as two hours’ continuous attention would be fatiguing, I shall always pause for five minutes at the end of the first hour. And I hope you will stand up during that time and disengage your attention from the subject. In this way you will be greatly relieved, and be enabled to bear the two hours’ exertion much better than would at first appear likely.


I hope that you will attend faithfully to the observations which form the introduction to my course. You will hereafter find that they have a most important practical bearing on the subject of Education.

We next come to the question—Does the mind in every act employ the whole brain, or are separate faculties of the mind connected with distinct portions of the brain as their respective organs? Is the brain single or multiplex?

That it is multiplex may be proved by a number of considerations. Analogy would lead us to this conclusion. Thus in all ascertained instances, different functions are never performed by the same organ. We have, for instance, a distinct organ for each sense, and it appears clear to me that to feel puffed up with pride, and to feel great deference to other, are manifestations of functions as distinct as those of smelling and hearing. Some parts appear to have several functions, but on analyzing them each function is found to be performed by its particular organ: thus, the tongue moves, feels and tastes; but then it contains a nerve of motion, a nerve of feeling and a nerve of taste; and it may be deprived of any one of those functions, without the other two being impaired. But the most interesting example of distinct functions being dependent on distinct organs is furnished by the spinal marrow. This is composed of two double columns, the anterior being appropriated to motion, the posterior to sensation. This, Sir Charles Bell clearly proved in the following manner: he cut an anterior nerve at its root in an ass, and the parts through which it ramified lost the power of motion, though feeling remained unimpaired. He cut a posterior nerve in another and the parts through which it ramified lost the power of feeling, but retained that of motion. Their distinctness is now universally acknowledged—and here I would make an important observation: it has been objected to Phrenology, that to the organs of the brain we cannot assign distinct boundaries; that we are unable to take a brain and isolate the organs with the dissecting-knife, showing precisely where one ends and another begins. But, mark, this objection holds equally against the distinct functions of the different parts of the spinal marrow: that one part is appropriated to nerves of sensation and another to nerves of motion, no one doubts; and yet to point out the precise boundaries of the distinct nervous columns is absolutely impossible.

Different faculties of the mind appear in succession: thus, affection for the parents or nurse appears before veneration, or the sense of justice, and the power of perceiving color and form before the reasoning power. I am told by mothers, that children manifest fear when two or three months old. If the brain be a single organ, these powers should be simultaneously developed; but this is not so, the only true explanations seems to be, that the mind is composed of different organs, which come to maturity at different times. Dr. Johnson, indeed, remarked that the doctrine of a variety of organs was absurd, ‘for,’ said he, ‘the man who can walk east can certainly walk west.’ But it may be remarked, that walking east and walking west are but walking—the exercise of a single function; whereas perceiving color, and reasoning, are quite distinct operations.

Again, genius is always partial, which it ought not to be if the organs of the mind were single. I have seen it maintained, in one of your periodicals, that genius is always the result of an accidental exciting cause. Thus, Newton was made a philosopher by the fall of an apple, and Byron became a great poet because he was lashed by the reviewers and condemned as a poetaster. But like causes produce like effects, and how has it that so many millions, before Newton, had seen apples fall without ever thinking of any thing but picking them up and eating them? And if a lashing be sufficient to produce a great poet, why are not great poets more numerous? Indeed, if critical flagellation had been sufficient, I should by this time have become a great poet myself.

Dreaming can be rationally explained by Phrenology alone. Were the brain a single organ, then would all its functions be asleep or awake together, and consequently dreaming be impossible. But this is not so. Cautiousness alone is sometimes awake: then are conjured up all fearful thoughts, and the dreams are of ‘hydras and chimeras dire.’ On the other hand, a number of the intellectual faculties may be awake and the sentiments asleep: then we may have a vision of friends long dead, but totally free from that awe or fear which their presence would inspire were not the feelings dormant.

Were not the brain a congeries of organs, partial idiocy could not occur; yet, that it does occur we well know. Here is the cast of an idiot whose intellectual faculties were externally small, but whose self-esteem was large; and notwithstanding his utter imbecility, he had a very comfortable opinion of his own importance. I knew a idiot on the banks of the Clyde who could play on one or two musical instruments, yet in other respects he was so utterly imbecile that he had to be supported by the parish. Now if the brain were a single organ this would be the same as if a man had the power of walking east without having the power of walking west.

Indeed, that the brain must consist of a congeries of organs, is maintained by distinguished physiologists otherwise opposed to Phrenology; as Fodere, and Sir Charles Bell. Such considerations as I have stated have impressed men, in all ages, with belief in the brain’s multiplex character; and particular portions of the head have been assigned to distinct faculties, from the time of Aristotle. This drawing represents a head published in Venice in 1562, by Ludovico Dolci. Now what is the difference between such an arrangement and the system of Gall? Simply this:—Gall discovered the seat of the various faculties. These older writers considered modes of activity as simple faculties, and located them according to a fancied propriety. Here in the front they placed common sense, because it seemed the most appropriate place for receiving information from the eyes, nose, and taste. Fancy they placed on the sides of the head, because it has such great facility for flying off in a tangent. Reflection they placed at the back of the head, because, in reflecting, men throw the mind back on itself. Memory they placed in the cerebellum, because they thought it found a nice little storehouse for the safe and snug keeping of ideas till they were needed. This, you will observe, was making man, not observing him.

The brain, then, is not a single organ, but each particular function is manifested by a particular portion of the brain.