Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How Two Famous Writers Took Down Phrenology

Mark Twain, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the 1800s' biggest pseudoscientific fad.

Having a phrenological "head reading" was one of the most significant fads of the nineteenth century—a means for better knowing oneself and a guide for self-improvement. Across the country, scores of Americans lined up (and paid hard-earned money) to have an “expert” examine their skull and draw conclusions about their character.

But by the dawn of the 20th century, phrenology had fallen, precipitously, out of fashion. How did this happen?

A variety of factors contributed to phrenology’s decline—advances in the medical sciences, the more immediate demands of the Civil War, and its aftermath—but two men played particularly prominent roles. These men were Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and Mark Twain.

They were best known, and widely beloved, as writers. Though of the two, only Twain remains widely celebrated, both were public icons in their day. Critically, in their respective assaults against the popular pseudoscience of phrenology, both men often took a humorous angle rather than a sober or strictly rational one, and these comedic assaults proved highly influential. The public laughed and listened.

In an era when misinformation and disinformation continue to plague public discourse around medicine, the story of phrenology’s rise and fall proves strikingly relevant. Holmes and Twain may be able to teach us a thing or two about the power of humor to shape public understanding of science and medicine for the better.

The Roots of Phrenology

To understand the American head reading craze, we must first go back to mid-1790s Vienna, where Dr. Franz Joseph Gall began to lecture on his new science of man. Unlike previous physiognomists attempting to correlate character with physical features, Gall included the brain in his theory.

Gall observed individuals unusually gifted in specific domains, such as music and mathematics. He astutely recognized that there are distinct types of memory, each associated with a different “faculty” of mind. His “species” of memory included types for words, numbers, and locations.

The fact that acute brain damage and certain diseases could affect some kinds of memory and not others helped give rise to two closely associated ideas. One was that the various faculties of mind must be involved with more than just memory. The second, even more revolutionary, was that each of faculty of mind depends on the integrity of a different part (“organ”) of the brain.

Gall relied on the extremes of society, exceptionally gifted individuals, criminals, and the insane, to support his theory that there are numerous mental faculties associated with anatomically separate organs. But because the brains of great artists, gifted mathematicians, and other exceptional talents were next to impossible to obtain and preserve, he turned to skulls, convinced that well-developed cortical organs would produce noticeable cranial bumps. Conversely, underdeveloped organs should result in telltale cranial depressions. His heavy reliance on craniology made his theory more “visible” and exciting to physicians, philosophers, and interested laity.

Gall left Vienna in 1805 with his recently hired assistant, Johann Gaspar Spurzheim. After lecturing throughout the German states and other parts of northern Europe, the two men settled in Paris. With Spurzheim’s help, Gall began to publish the first volumes of his “great work” in 1810.

Three years later, Spurzheim split from Gall, in part to make changes in what had been “their” system. He now began presenting his modified version of the theory in Britain under the catchy term “phrenology.” In 1832, four years after Gall’s death, Spurzheim sailed to the United States, hoping to interest more Americans in the doctrine that seemed to promise so much.

Gall had envisioned what he was doing as a scientific enterprise, one that would allow him to understand more about the mind, the functional organization of the brain, brain damage, individual differences, and where humans stood on the Great Chain of Being. Yet before the midcentury, phrenology as a scientific endeavor was already languishing among physicians and scientists in the United States, although it now had considerable traction among the laity. Working-class men, women with young children, clergy, and even people running for office were now lining up to pay to have their heads read by phrenologists, some of whom passed themselves off as erudite “professors” in cities or made stops in hamlets across the expanding country.

Thanks to Orson and Lorenzo Fowler, who started a huge and widely successful business promoting and selling all things phrenological during the 1830s, head reading became one of the nineteenth century’s most significant scientific and medical fads. In retrospect, that this could happen is unsurprising, since its promoters were promising a scientific way to know more about oneself and others, a path to happiness, and a sound basis for reforming legal systems, asylums, and other stodgy institutions needing help. The Fowlers and their business associates understood markets and were quick to capitalize on phrenology’s appeal. They presented the doctrine to people near and far, providing inquisitive readers with what they most wanted to know.

Twain and Holmes Take on Phrenology

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who would write under the pen name “Mark Twain,” saw phrenology’s appeal and long reach while just a teenager in Hannibal, Missouri. Born in 1835, he was intrigued when a phrenologist arrived and began to lecture and read heads in his small town on the Mississippi River in about 1850. In 1855, he copied parts of a phrenology book into his first notebook. Afterward, he maintained a continuing interest in the controversial subject while working as a steamboat pilot, trekking through the Wild West, traveling the world, and residing in Connecticut and New York.

Skeptical by nature, he even conducted a “little test” on famed head reader Lorenzo Fowler during the early 1870s, after which he underwent other head readings. Convinced by his clever experiment that the head readers were tricksters and frauds, he went on to disparage them in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in a futuristic but never completed work called Eddypus, and in a humorous autobiographical dictation.

Clemens was not, however, the first American to use humor to tell the laity that the head readers were charlatans preying on gullible citizens. Although overlooked by historians, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, a Boston physician, writer, and heralded wit, did much to clear the path for him.

Holmes, who trained in Boston and Paris and obtained his medical degree from Harvard, was determined to improve American medicine by exposing false beliefs and worthless remedies. He went to Lorenzo Fowler for a phrenological examination before Clemens did so, and he also used his wry sense of humor to educate the public about the head readers before “Mark Twain” did the same. His first and most important exposé appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1859, after which he continued to assail the head readers in his three “medicated novels” and lectures.

Exposing Phrenological Fraud

Both Holmes and Clemens saw a need to educate the laity about the head readers, whom they regarded as frauds. Reaching shopkeepers, farmers, women raising families, and others with their warnings about the head readers was important.

This is because ordinary citizens, more than physicians and academics, believed in the fad and paid money, sometimes in short supply, to have their heads read. Some were also opening their purses to purchase the books, journals, and other products the Fowlers and their minions were selling, not knowing that much of what they were promoting as science was little more than nonsense.

Holmes and Clemens were exceptionally skilled writers and communicators, and both men knew that humor could draw more attention to what they were stating—that it would make their profound underlying messages even more memorable. Additionally, it would generate more thinking and discussions about the head readers, the fad, and human gullibility. In brief, both writers entered the phrenology wars knowing how to use humor as a tool—a weapon that could stir up the troops and injure the opposition.

But although Twain and Holmes assailed the head readers as frauds, they did not reject everything Gall, Spurzheim, and their followers stated about the brain, cognition, and behaviors. Specialized brain areas, different kinds of memory, cortical localization of function, the importance of heredity, and individual differences made sense to Twain and Holmes.

In other words, even while cracking jokes, they chose not to paint with too broad a brush, and they accepted those features of phrenology that would prove instrumental in shaping modern psychology and the neurosciences while rejecting its unsubstantiated, craniological tenets. Their humorous jabs did not amount to sweeping skepticism of new advances in medicine. They managed to separate the cutting-edge insights from the pseudoscientific chaff and communicate those subtle distinctions to the public—with a laugh.

This excerpt is adapted from the preface and epilogue of Mark Twain, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the Head Readers by Dr. Stanley Finger, Cambridge University Press, © 2023 Stanley Finger. All rights reserved.

More from Psychology Today