Holistic medicine



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Phrenology was at the beginning of the 19th century. The term is composed of the ancient Greek words "phrenós" (spirit, mind, soul) and "lógos" (teaching).

The concept originally came from the French doctor and anatomist Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828), who later taught in France. In his teaching, he tried to assess character traits, intellectual abilities and characteristics as well as functions based on the shape of the skull and to assign certain brain areas to them.

Seen in this way, phrenology can be described as an alternative diagnostic method that could be compared in the broadest sense with techniques such as facial diagnosis or iris diagnosis.

Franz Joseph Gall is seen as a pioneer of modern neuroscience. He is also said to have been one of the influences on the founding of osteopathy and the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. Today his concept is largely outdated.

Justification of phrenology

After completing his medical degree, Franz Joseph Gall began working in Vienna in 1785 and examined the brain in addition to the external shape of the head. He discovered previously unknown anatomical structures and functional connections.

He also studied the shape of the head and associated it with the abilities or character traits of the people examined. Through his observations, he began to formulate laws.

Gall is said to have acquired a considerable collection of skulls, plaster casts and wax models for his studies. He was not only fixated on structures, but also viewed his research from a philosophical point of view, for example by looking for the location of the soul in the brain.

Spread of phrenology

In 1802, Franz Joseph Gall's research and ideas were branded as heretical in Austria. Gall began teaching throughout Europe with his assistant, the theologian Johann Caspar Spurzheim, before they both relocated to Paris in 1807.

After a while the Scottish lawyer George Combe joined them and supported them. In 1828, with his Essay on the Constitution of Man and its Relations to External Objects, Combe wrote the phrenology standard work in Gall's year of death, which was also backed by naturalistic principles. Combe's brother Andrew began to disseminate phrenology on a large scale through a publication in the sense of a simple medicine accessible to the general public in America.

From the 1850s, it was primarily wandering preachers in the United States who brought the phrenology books to people and offered character analyzes based on the interpretation of the bulges of the human skulls. They always had a large number of skulls with them, which impressed the audience.

Subsequently, phrenology was considered chic, progressive and modern. It established itself very quickly and successfully, especially in psychology and in intellectual circles. For example, she spoke out against physical assaults by teachers on pupils and blunt memorizing as educational tools, emphasized the importance of the role of the mother for the development of the child and integrated gymnastic exercises in the daily routine.

End of phrenology

The influence of phrenology went so far that even Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer were said to have been influenced by it in their work on evolution. Some of Franz Joseph Gall's assumptions were later scientifically confirmed by Paul Broca and Carl Wernicke, among others. Others, however, were rejected, such as the relationship between skull shape and traits or skills, which was at the heart of phrenology.

Phrenology was supplemented by less fatalistic concepts such as Mesmerism or Spiritualism and was eventually replaced. (tf, kh)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Thorsten Fischer, Barbara Schindewolf-Lensch


  • Parker Jones, Oiwi, Alfaro-Almagro, Fidel, Jbabdi, Saad: An empirical, 21st century evaluation of phrenology; in: Cortex, Vol. 106, page 26-35, 2018, ScienceDirect
  • Adrian Furnham: Phrenology, 50 key ideas in psychology, Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, Heidelberg 2010, link.springer.com
  • Eling, Paul, Finger, Stanley: Gall and phrenology. New perspectives; in: Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, Vol. 29, Issue 1, page 1-4, December 2019, Taylor & Francis Online
  • Dönges, Jan: What is phrenology ?; (published on January 23, 2018), Spektrum.de

Video: Phrenology (December 2022).