Amherst Magazine

College Row
Diagrams of areas of the brain.Phrenological maps of the head.

From the Archives

In 1833, Henry Ward Beecher, Class of 1834, attended a lecture in Boston by Dr. Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, a follower of Dr. Franz Joseph Gall. Gall was the founder of phrenology, a “science” claiming that personality and character can be determined by studying the shape of the skull. The phrenological map of the head divides the skull into 37 sections, called faculties. Each section is given a characteristic: self-esteem, conscientiousness, wonder. A phrenologist would match each bump on a patient’s head to a particular attribute. A bump behind the right ear, for example, would indicate that “destructiveness” is a strong character trait.

After hearing Spurzheim, Beecher became absorbed in phrenology and mastered its technicalities and jargon. (See “Before He Was Famous.”) He believed implicitly in the theory for his entire life. He even had his own bumps read, by Amherst classmate Orson Squire Fowler. Fowler discovered, according to the 1840 book Fowler’s Practical Phrenology, that Beecher’s head was very large in the areas of “ideality” (taste, love of beauty, poetry), language, mirth, benevolence and approbativeness (love of applause). Fowler also wrote that Beecher’s rooms at Amherst were notoriously untidy, illustrating that Beecher’s “organ of order was almost wholly wanting.”

College presidents were not immune to interest in phrenology. In 1847, Lorenzo Fowler, Orson’s brother, read the head of Edward Hitchcock, Amherst’s third president. He informed Hitchcock, a noted geologist, “Your constitution favors a combination of mental and physical labor … in which mind must take the lead and give way to all your efforts. Your temperament is not favorable to enthusiasm, ardor and excitement, but inclines you more to cool dispassionate reason and deliberate conclusions, and to patient plodding investigations.”

Beecher and Orson Fowler went on the road together, reading heads in western Massachusetts towns. While Fowler examined the heads, Beecher did the talking—a division true to their phrenological strengths. The fees of the enterprising students ranged from 50 cents to $5 per event. Claude Moore Fuess noted in a 1935 book that for one such lecture, Beecher received $10 and spent 85 cents on an engagement ring for his fiancée.

Beecher went on to become a famous preacher, while Fowler took up phrenology as a profession. The Fowler brothers co-founded a phrenology business and a publishing house that published many volumes on phrenology, hydropathy, physiology, mesmerism, psychology, sex education and shorthand. (Of more lasting note, the house also employed Walt Whitman and distributed the first edition of Leaves of Grass.) The two brothers became the leading phrenologists of their time. Phrenology itself, however, did not fare as well as its accomplished followers. Even in its heyday it had many detractors, and it has long since been wholly discredited as a science.

—Daria D’Arienzo, head of Archives and Special Collections

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Image: Amherst College Archives & Special Collections