Face to Face: Physiognomy & Phrenology

Tip of the Iceberg: Unique & Unusual Finds at the Harvard Library 2012-09-25

Considered perfectly legitimate scientific disciplines during the first half of the 19th century, phrenology and physiognomy eventually became recognized as “pseudosciences” by the end of the century. But during its Victorian Age heyday, the popularity of phrenology was widespread from the scientific community to the general public. Phrenology was so popular and sensationalized that phrenology parlors appeared in Europe and America along with “automated phrenology machines” for self-diagnosis or as entertainment. What made it so popular was the notion that one could easily determine personality (and perhaps morality) from physical characteristics alone. A phrenologist’s focus was the relationship between a person’s character and the morphology of their skull. In the process of an examination, the phrenologist would evaluate, diagnose, and/or even predict a patient’s temperament through the measurement of the various “brain organs”.  These organs were identified as specific locations on, in, and around the skull, all of which were proposed and mapped out by the German physician Franz Joseph Gall in 1796. These brain organs, become generally accepted, even championed, by many budding neurologists as a valid diagnostic tool for studying the human brain. The origins of physiognomy, on the other hand, can be traced back much further than phrenology, and the lengthy discourse provided the foundation for phrenological theory. Dating back to early Greeks, Aristotle, in particular, believed strongly in physiognomy as an important and meaningful course of examination to make clear connections between the physical body and moral character. Johann Kaspar Lavater helped to revive the practice of physiognomy in 1772, with the publication of his own essays on the human face, which gained great popularity throughout Europe. Together these pseudosciences should not be viewed as fanciful, benign, or just misguided scientific endeavors of the 18th and 19th century, but rather portentous and troublesome practices, leading to or even perpetuating prejudices and long-standing biases. People could be easily categorized, labeled, and judged, not on merit or deed, but by their mere physical appearance. As a result, phrenology and physiognomy caught the interest of certain individuals with strong ideological convictions who wish to use these pseudosciences as justification for social, racial, religious, or political change.

Prof. A.E. Willis, physiognomist and phrenologist, published books on human faces, providing examples of certain physical attributes along with a character analysis.


“Godless character”


“Cute but Cold”


“Unprincipled and sneaky”


“One of those smiling, happy, I-do-not-care-in-for-a-good-time sort of expressions”


Dr. Joseph Simms, also focused on faces, making connections to animal behavior. He also offered advice on how to chose the right companion for life.

“The dove or round shape of the eye openings is the most unexceptionable evidence of large mating love”


polyeroticity of the eye


“If you prize happiness in married life, do not marry one who is old enough to be your father, or as young as children should be”


Prof. Nelson Sizer, Editor of the Phrenological Journal, is noted for making some 300,000 examinations in his lifetime

Phrenology map


Willis, A. E. The human face :come, view the face and see the soul engraved upon a living scroll. Chicago : A.E. Willis, 1884.
Persistent Link:
Simms, Joseph. Human faces, what they mean!how to read personal character. New York, Murray Hill Publishing Company, 1887 [c1872, 1886].
Persistent Link:
Sizer, Nelson. How to teach according to temperament and mental development, or, Phrenology in the school-room and the family. New York : S.R. Wells, 1877.
Persistent Link:
Widener Library
Harvard University