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April 10, 2010

When I was a kid we had a bust like the one you see below just sitting around the house (I think it lived on the piano most of the time).  It was creepy, but I never thought much about it.

But then the other day I was reading the obituary in The Guardian of this guy named Peter Cooper.  He was a psychologist known for his work with market research, and seemed like a pretty smart guy.  (If you’re wondering why I was reading his obituary, let’s just say I like reading obituaries.)  But towards the end of the obit was this:

A byproduct of Peter’s love of psychology was his passion for phrenology. While he acknowledged the flawed science behind it, for him phrenological busts were things of beauty, and over the years he amassed a significant collection of phrenologica. He sought to revive interest in the subject, and in the early 1980s commissioned a limited edition of Coalport china phrenological heads.

Until 3 seconds ago I had no idea what “Coalport china” was but apparently it’s some fancy British outfit that makes figurines and other such and such.  But back to the point at hand.  So this dead Peter Cooper guy, smart guy, apparently likes horses based on the picture in his obit, why is he so fascinated by phrenology and, by the way, what the hell is phrenology anyway and why did my father have that weird head on the piano?

Apparently the idea of phrenology (from the greek “phrenos,” meaning “brain”) is that you can analyze a person’s personality based upon the shape of his or her head.  The guy who came up with this brilliant idea was a Viennese “doctor” named Franz Joseph Gall.  As he put it himself:

my purpose is to ascertain the functions of the brain in general, and those of its different parts in particular ; to show that it is possible to ascertain different dispositions and inclinations by the elevations and depressions upon the head; and to present in a clear light the most important consequences which result therefrom to medicine, morality, education, and legislation a word, to the science of human nature.


This post is getting a little long, but suffice it to say that the idea of phrenology had quite a bit of appeal to a fairly broad range of people in the 19th and early 20th centuries, some who were just fascinated I guess by the idea in what were really the fairly young days of medicine and science (like, say, Edgar Allan Poe), and more than a few scumbags who liked the racialist anthropological concept that a person’s intellectual value could be physically measured (hello Belgians and Nazis).  But, at the end of the day, scientifically, phrenology appears to be a total crock.

Let’s not allow that to stop us, however from enjoying, like my father and the late Peter Cooper, the cool and weird phrenology heads that resulted from this archaic and creepy bit of pseudoscience.  And, with that, I leave you to The Roots:

2 Comments leave one →
  1. jomi permalink
    April 15, 2010 6:03 pm

    What ever happened to that head?

    • Fat Al permalink*
      April 15, 2010 7:12 pm

      If the piano is still there, I’m guessing it’s still sitting on top of it.

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