Records of the Phrenological Society of Edinburgh

Scope and Content

The records of the Phrenological Society include, within boxes: cash book; catalogues of skull casts and other; papers of the Society; six notebooks including lecture titles, names of members and visitors who inspected the casts, and a 'memoir on the phrenology of Hindostan' read to the Society in 1823. The records also include a letter-book covering the period 1820-1840, minute-books for 1841-1870, and scrap-books of newspaper cuttings and printed items. Some material is stamped: Henderson Trust Museum.

Administrative / Biographical History

The Phrenological Society of Edinburgh was formed on 22 February 1820. The first meeting of the Society was held at Hermitage Place, in Edinburgh, and was attended by: George Combe (1788-1858), Writer to the Signet; James Brownlee, Advocate; Andrew Combe, Surgeon; William Waddell, WS; Lindsay Mackersy (sic), Accountant; and, Rev. David Walsh. The Chairman of the first meeting was noted as George Combe and a moving spirit of the Society was Sir George Steuart Mackenzie of Coul, Baronet (1780-1848). The object of the Phrenological Society was 'to hear papers' and 'to discuss questions' connected with Phrenology. It would 'hold correspondence' with societies and individuals taking an interest in Phrenology, and collect and pursue facts and views that 'may improve and enlarge the boundaries of the Science'. Although Phrenology was a popular field of study well into the 20th century, it became discredited by scientific research. Phrenologists looked at the skull for indications of mental faculties and traits of character, and its principles were established by Franz-Joseph Gall (1758-1828), an Austrian, and by Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1776-1832) and George Combe. Gall had studied the heads of prisoners and inmates of lunatic asylums, and from his observations he deduced certain traits in the individuals, mapping out where 'murder' or 'theft' and so on were seated in the brain. Spurzheim and Combe went on to divide the scalp into regions where, for example, acquisitiveness, benevolence, combativeness, constructiveness, destructiveness, individuality, linguistic perception, self-esteem, wit and wonder etc were seated.

Access Information

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.


The biographical history was compiled using the following material: (1) The new encyclopaedia Britannica. 15th ed. Vol.9. Micropaedia. p.407. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1991. (2) Material in the collection.

Compiled by Graeme D Eddie, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division

Other Finding Aids

Important finding aids generally are: the alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives, consisting of typed slips in sheaf binders and to which additions were made until 1987; and the Index to Accessions Since 1987.

Custodial History

Some papers, books and specimens of the Phrenological Society of Edinburgh were given to the William Ramsay Henderson Trust (originally founded for the study of Phrenology) for its Museum. Books were then given to Edinburgh University Library, and specimens to the Anatomical Museum. In 1952, the papers were transferred to Professor J. C. Brash of the Department of Anatomy, Edinburgh University, before being given to the Library.

Related Material

Lists of members of the Phrenological Society can be found in yearly volumes of The Phrenological Journal and Miscellany, and later series, at shelfmark Att.35.5., Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division. Also, at Gen. 1733/83 there is a letter relating to skulls from South Australia delivered to the Society's collection in 1854. There are also references to letters and a small group of papers of George Combe.