Adaptation and remediation : the role of the media in the dissemination of phrenology

Daskalova, Mila (2020) Adaptation and remediation : the role of the media in the dissemination of phrenology. The Journal of the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society (15). pp. 61-82. ISSN 1752-0320

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Although never unanimously recognised as a respected science, phrenology was a highly influential and far reaching socio-political and intellectual phenomenon that attracted followers from all walks of life and informed discussions about prison reform, psychiatric practice, and the establishment of national education. The fact that The Constitution of Man in Relation to External Objects, the work of Edinburgh phrenologist George Combe, became one of the best-selling books of the nineteenth century is indicative of phrenology's popularity. What made phrenology so appealing was its promise of self-knowledge, self-improvement and access to absolute truth. The question of how phrenology managed to reach its audiences in order to make these promises, despite its flawed scientific justification and the open hostility of the intellectual authorities, is also crucial to understanding its omnipresence. Terry Parssinen has suggested that 'phrenology's success as a popular movement was due […] to its omnipresent lecturers and profuse cheap literature', but without reflecting on how and why they came to be omnipresent and profuse. John van Wyhe has offered a more detailed account of the diffusion of phrenology, arguing that public lecturing and word of mouth were the main means for spreading the science and highlighting the importance of personal contact in both forms of communication. Phrenology's dissemination through print has also been examined: special attention has been paid to The Constitution of Man, and James Poskett has recently expanded the project to global contexts and texts, tracing the international circulation of phrenological books and periodicals