You have a hardy, enduring organization indicating a great amount of both mental and physical power. Your head is more than usually uniform in its developments, the brain is large densely organized & well proportioned to the muscular and vital indications. Your constitution favors a combination of mental & physical labor, but in which mind must take the lead and give [word missing] to all your efforts. — Your temperament is not favorable to enthusiasm, ardor & excitement, but inclines you more to cool dispassionate reading and deliberate conclusions, & to patient plodding investigations, yet you are not deficient in mental activity, intensity of thought nor power of feeling but these tendencies are all so regulated as to secure a harmonious and uniform action. The mental tendency is indicated by your large brain, sharpness of feature, and firmness in the texture of organization. The power of endurance whether mental or muscular is seen in the prominent or motive temperament & in the density & compactness of the organization. The continuity and uniformity of mental action is the result of your large Concentrativeness, Cautiousness and Firmness, and a predominance of the reasoning organs….
So begins the report of a phrenological examination of the head of Edward Hitchcock (Edward and Orra White Hitchcock Papers, box 1, folder 2). As such, we have a wonderful case study in 19th-century pseudoscience.
Phrenology, the study of the outer surface of the skull as a means of determining mental faculties and character traits, was introduced in the early 19th century by Franz-Joseph Gall (1758–1828), a Viennese doctor. (It is a close cousin to physiognomy, the ancient pseudoscience that deduces character from an examination of facial features.) Phrenology enjoyed a huge popularity and serious following even into the 20th century. Gall’s system was based on several suppositions, such as that all human mental powers are seated in the brain; that they can be analyzed into a definite number of independent faculties or traits; that each has its seat in a definite region of the surface of the brain; and that the prominence of one region over another on an individual’s skull directly correlates to the predominance of one faculty or trait in that individual. It all seems quite preposterous in the light of modern-day neuroscience and bio-social psychology; moreover, it is easy to see how the system was vulnerable to all sorts of exploitative manipulation and showmanship, in which results were derived that conform to traits readily observable through other means (just as a palm-reader or psychic medium can appear to “read” a subject and reveal facts known only to him or her).
Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864), the subject of this phrenological report, was at that time a man of no small renown. He was a respected clergyman and an internationally noted geologist, as well as the 3rd president of Amherst College from 1845 to 1854. What was less known (but which was probably readily observable) was that he was also an inveterate depressive, dyspeptic and hypochondriac. In spite of these handicaps, Hitchcock was a true Victorian dynamo. He holds a place in history for seeing Amherst College through a grave economic crisis, for collecting what is now the world’s premiere collection of dinosaur footprints (on impressive display at Amherst College’s Beneski Museum of Natural History), and for contemplating their significance not only for science but for religion. Hitchcock visited the office of phrenologists Orson Squire Fowler and his brother Lorenzo Niles Fowler on the return from a six-week trip to Richmond, Virginia, which he and his wife Orra White Hitchcock had undertaken on doctor’s advice to seek a warmer climate. Both Fowler brothers had studied at Amherst, and Orson Squire Fowler graduated in 1834. Hitchcock, one surmises, was on a journey to escape his gloom and seek self-understanding; the brothers Fowler, meanwhile, must have delighted to receive their former professor and add his name to their list of luminaries treated.
Given the circumstances, the phrenological report on Edward Hitchcock seems predictable. He received high marks for his power of concentration, self-esteem, decisiveness, and veneration of the Supreme Being, and for being “resolute, courageous, spirited and efficient as an opponent.” Most tellingly, he was given low marks for his “ability to render one’s self agreeable;” and for “cognizance and recollection of succession, the lapse of time, dates, how long ago things occurred.”