George Combe (1788-1858), and his System of Phrenology

Scope and Content

The item that forms the collection is a manuscript version of the susbtantial part of the 4th edition of Combe's A system of phrenology, which was printed in Edinburgh in 1836. It consists of 634 numbered pages written in ink, unbound.

This is a most desirable addition as Special Collections, Edinburgh University Library have the records of the Phrenological Society of Edinburgh (Gen.608).

Administrative / Biographical History

Phrenology was the study of the skull as a guide to individual human nature and tendencies - looking at the skull for indications of mental faculties and traits of character. Although it was a popular field of study well into the 20th century it is today thoroughly discredited as a scientific system, though it is still of historical and social interest. George Combe of Edinburgh was a leading exponent of phrenology during the mid-19th century and wrote a number of popular books on the system.

The son of a brewer, George Combe was born in Edinburgh on 21 October 1788. He went to the parish school of St. Cuthberts in either 1794 or 1795, and then on to the Royal High School. Between 1802 and 1804 he attended classes at Edinburgh University. In 1815, through an article in the Edinburgh review, there was an attack on the phrenologists Franz-Joseph Gall (1758-1828) and Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1776-1832). Spurzheim visited Edinburgh to defend himself through a series of lectures, and George Combe attended these becoming an ardent disciple and exponent in his own right. From 1818 he began writing and lecturing on phrenology, and in 1820 he formed the Phrenological Society and started the Phrenological journal. In spite of formal criticism of the science and arguments within the Society, by 1836, Combe had become a candidate for the Chair of Logic and Edinburgh University, though in the end his candidacy failed.

Combe's publications included: Elements of phrenology (1824); System of phrenology (1825-1853); and, The constitution of man considered in relation to external objects (1828)

George Combe died on 14 August 1858.

Access Information

Open to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance of visit.

We strongly encourage you to contact us before your visit as special access conditions and restrictions apply to some collections. Please see our information on requesting material

Acquisition Information

Accession no:E2008.37.


The biographical/administrative history was compiled using the following material: (1) Stephen, Leslie. and Lee, Sidney (eds.). Dictionary of national biography. Vol.IV. Chamber-Craigie. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1908.

Other Finding Aids

None prepared for this collection.

Archivist's Note

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

Related Material

Special Collections, Edinburgh University Library have the Records of the Phrenological Society of Edinburgh at Gen. 608. In addition, the bulk of the Combe papers are at the National Library of Scotland, NLS (MSS.7201-7515), but the NLS does not appear to have any manuscripts of his published works.