Phrenology and Edinburgh

By Daisy Chamberlain

Phrenology emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as an “analytical science” involving the study of the shape and dimensions of the human skull. The thirty-seven “faculties” of the skull were deemed to provide insight into personal character. The science is most closely associated with the Austrian Franz Josef Gall and German Johann Spurzheim, and was introduced in the British Isles by Edinburgh graduate George Combe. Combe’s The Constitution of Man, Considered in Relation to External Objects, first published in 1828, was extremely successful. By 1860, it had sold 100,000 copies in Britain and twice that number in America. By the end of the nineteenth century, it even outsold Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859).

Phrenology as a “Global” Science

The study of phrenology was an inherently global project. Phrenologists viewed their work as a “global scientific movement” and skulls were collected on every continent. The University of Edinburgh possesses hundreds of human skulls in its Medical School and Anatomical Museum. Seven from India were presented to Edinburgh’s Phrenological Society by George Swinton, Chief Secretary to the British government during their rule over the subcontinent, in 1833.

It is one of the overall aims of UncoverED to explicitly place the University of Edinburgh’s “global” status in its colonial and imperial context. Each of the seven Indian skulls within the University’s collection bear the label ‘Thug,’ thus situating their collection firmly within the colonial campaign to suppress the practice of ‘Thuggee’, and transforming them into “imperial trophies” signifying the omnipotence of the colonial regime and the triumph of imperial law and order (Wagner, p.39).

Despite initially framing itself generally as a means of understanding human psychology, phrenology was increasingly applied as a theory of racial categorisation and hierarchisation, thus implicitly justifying white domination, imperialism, and colonialism. Over the course of the nineteenth century, multiple Edinburgh graduates, including George Murray Paterson, John William Jackson, and G.S. Mackenzie studied and wrote on the subject, making the University of Edinburgh a key site for the production of this racialized knowledge. In comparing the sizes and shapes of skulls from across the globe, Edinburgh phrenologists explicitly placed the white man at the top of a racial hierarchy which accordingly emphasised the “primitive” nature of his colonial subjects (Wagner, p.38).

John William Jackson’s 1863 text Ethnology and Phrenology, as an Aid to the Historian, makes this standpoint particularly clear. In it, he claims that, “contemplated through the medium of Comparative Anatomy, a Negro is but the embryonic, and a Mongol the form of the Caucasian or perfect man” (Jackson, p.34). Jackson’s descriptions of African skulls were steeped in the paternalistic rhetoric of empire. He concluded that the “African” was an “utterly helpless child” who required European mentorship. But this paternalism only thinly veiled the self-interestedness of the imperial cause:

We can teach him much more, and it will be in our interest to do so. Tropical Africa must not remain forever a commercial desert. Its products would enrich the world, and as a market, its demand might stimulate the industry of all Europe [emphasis mine]

(Jackson, p37-8).

The phrenological studies of George Murray Paterson were also directly related to his participation in the British Empire. He was a member of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society, and received an M.D. from the University in 1817. Four years later he travelled to India as a surgeon with the East India Company, where he founded the Calcutta Phrenological Society (SNAC). He explained that it was due to his travels across the British Empire that he was able to examine over 3,000 heads.

During his service in India, Paterson established the ‘Phrenological School of Munerampoor’, and described the ways in which he personally recorded the progress of his male students with callipers:

On entrance every lad’s head was manipulated, measured & registered in a book kept at the school for the purpose, and every month afterwards it was regularly measured again, so that any slightest alteration might be noted with extreme accuracy

(Poskett, p.434)

Paterson’s constant surveillance of his pupils, and his coercive handling of their heads and bodies, is an example of the violent nature of knowledge production in a colonial context. Paterson’s phrenology transformed these boys into objects of curiosity and data to be collected, and assumed the right to ownership of Black and Brown bodies by white colonisers.

Resisting Racist Theories

The racist claims made by phrenologists, and their contribution to the maintenance of colonial power, did not go unchallenged by black students at Edinburgh. James ‘Africanus’ Beale Horton and Theophilus Scholes contested the notions of white supremacy that lay at the heart of this scientific enquiry. James ‘Africanus’ Beale Horton was born in Sierra Leone in 1835, and received an M.D. from the University of Edinburgh in 1859. Around a third of his 1868 work West African Countries and Peoples, British and Native: And a Vindication of the African Race is dedicated to the discussion of race, anatomy and phrenology. In this text, Horton accuses phrenologists who emphasised the difference in cranial capacity between Europeans and Africans as being “men of science with restricted observation”. Instead, he pointed to investigations taking place in Germany, which proved that “there exists no material difference between the brain of the white and black races” (Horton).

T.E.S. Scholes, born in Stewart Town, northwestern Jamaica in 1856, studied medicine at Edinburgh, and completed his five-year course in four years. His famous work Glimpses of the Ages, or the “Superior” and “Inferior” Races, So-Called, Discussed in the Light of Science and History was published in 1905. Scholes described as “an impossibility” the claim that the “average negro brain is smaller than the average Caucasian brain, the ratio being about 1210 grammes (negro) to 1400 grammes (Caucasian)” (Scholes, 225-6). Scholes’s attacks on scientific racism were admired by the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois and Jomo Kenyatta. In the 1930s, the future leader of independent Kenya visited Scholes and thanked him for his work (ODNB).

Curation and Repatriation

In displaying the heads and skulls of colonial subjects as depersonalized and apolitical scientific specimens, spaces such as the Anatomical Museum at the University of Edinburgh obscure both the physical and epistemic violence and trauma they experienced. This blog has attempted to re-politicize the history of phrenology in Edinburgh, by explicitly reconnecting it with its colonial and imperial context.

Recent decades have seen various demands from descendant communities for the repatriation of their ancestors’ remains. In the mid-1990s, for example, the removal of Saartjie Baartman from the Musee de l’Homme in Paris was described by South African Minister of the Arts and Culture Ben Ngubane as essential to “the process of healing and restoring of our national dignity and humanity” (Bank, 387). In light of such demands, it is important to question and challenge the University of Edinburgh’s possession of colonial human remains, including the seven aforementioned Indian skulls, as both outdated and dishonourable.


Anon. Paterson, George Murray. SNAC [online]. Available at: [last accessed 12 September 2019].

Bank, A. (1996). Of ‘Native Skulls’ and ‘Noble Caucasians’: Phrenology in Colonial South Africa. Journal of Southern African Studies, Volume 22, (3).

Blake, K. (2007). T.E.S. Scholes: The Unknown Pan Africanist. Race and Class, Volume 49, (1).

Combe, G. (1850).The Constitution of Man, Considered in Relation to External Objects. New York: Fowlers and Wells.

Green, J. (n.d.). Scholes, Theophilus Edward Samuel [pseud. Bartholomew Smith]. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [online]. Available at: [last accessed 12 September 2019].

Jackson, J. (1863). Ethnology and Phrenology, as an Aid to the Historian. London: Truebner & Co.

Jenkins, B. (2015). Phrenology, Heredity, and Progress in George Combe’s Constitution of Man. The British Journal for the History of Science, Volume 48, (3).

Poskett, J. (2017). Phrenology, Correspondence, and the Global Politics of Reform, 1815-1848. The Historical Journal, Volume 60, (2).

Scholes, T. (1905). Glimpses of the Ages or the “Superior” and “Inferior” Races, So-called, Discussed in the Light of Science and History. Volume II. London: John Long.

Wagner, K. (2010). Confessions of a Skull: Phrenology and Colonial Knowledge in Early Nineteenth-Century India. History Workshop Journal, Volume 69, (1).