Neuroscience by Caricature in Europe throughout the ages

by Lorenzo Lorusso
Contents ▹


Fig. 1
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Cranoscopische Handgriffe

by David Hess (1770-1843), published in 1795

Four pairs of people are involved in phrenological analysis, with one man seated at the right holding a skull.

David Hess was a Swiss writer and caricaturist and by 1801 he published a successful collection of caricatures under the pseudonym of David Hildebrand. Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, USA

In the 18th century a new concept about brain began birth: how different functions of mind were assigned to specific cortical regions. Theory of cortical localization had a champion in Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828). He tried to associate bodily feature with personality characteristics. He renewed a new version of physiognomy, promoting the idea that the development of the different cerebral areas is reflected in the pattern of bumps on the overlying skull. He defined twenty seven faculties of mind located in the human brain. With Gall and Johann Spurzheim (1776-1832) the mental science of ‘Phrenology’ was born. They founded their theories examined animal and human skulls without clinical correlations. Gall’s Phrenology had a great vogue among the educated classes in England and it was considered that the new science represented a marvelous addition to our knowledge. Gall’s ideas were later contested and supported by various French scientists: Marie Jean Pierre Flourens (1794-1867) and Paul Broca (1824-1880) who in 1860s argued for cortical localization and cerebral dominance, citing clinical cases to make his points.

Fig. 2
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“Bumpology H.T.D.B. Esq del”, Etched by George Cruikshank (1792-1878)

Published by George Humphrey (1773?-1831) in London on 24 February 1826.

Quatrain etched below image: “Pores o’er the cranial map with learned eyes, Each rising hill and bumpy knoll descries, Here secret fires, and there deep mines of sense His touch detects beneath each prominence”. A scroll next to a phrenological head is inscribed “Thurtell shown to be craniologically an excellent character”. Thurtell John (1794-1824) was hanged as a murderer (The Elstree Murder) and he was executed at Hertford in 1824.

A young man kneels before a phrenologist who feels his forehead; behind the boy stands his mother. An assistant, reading from a book, stands behind the phrenologist. Bookshelves are against the wall and in the background is a bust on a pedestal. The phrenologist is identified as James De Ville (1777-1846), a phrenologist in the Strand. He is portrayed as an elderly man with a bizarrely shaped skull. He stands on the right and holds out his right hand to touch the head of the young man kneeling before him. Behind the phrenologist stands his amanuensis writing in a book “Very large wit no. 32”. Right, a large bookcase full of books. On back wall, craniological drawings framed in swept frames.

James De Ville was a phrenological plaster and he was a great collectionist of phrenological specimens. In 1824, De Ville published a standardized plaster bust demonstrating the layout of the phrenological organs with an accompanying booklet. In 1823, he founded with Physician with interest in Mesmerism and Phrenolgy John Elliotson (1791-1868) and with a Civil Engineer Bryan Donkin (1768-1855) the London Phrenological Society in which De Ville served as treasures. De Ville became the most prominent practical phrenologist, supplier and maker of phrenological casts in London from 1820s to the 1840s. In 1826, Spurzheim declared that De Ville’s collection was the finest he had ever seen. In 1840, De Ville became a member of the Phrenological Association and he examined an enormous number of heads including those of many well-known figure as such as George Eliot, William Blake, the Duke of Wellington and Prince Albert. At his death his phrenological collection consisted of 5450 specimens, 3000 of which were of non-human crania. About 200 of which were skulls the remainder of which were mostly original casts. Many of the skulls exemplified various human races. In 170 cases De Ville had taken subsequent life casts to demonstrate the change in the shape of heads during life. Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, USA

Fig. 3
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Calves’ Heads and Brains

Calves’ Heads and Brains: or a Phrenological Lecture. J. Lump and L. Bump, in London, 1826

The animated lecturer represents the Edinburgh phrenologist George Combe (1788-1858). Behind him are his inspirations, Spurzheim as a bust standing on the floor, Gall in a jar on the shelf. The creators of this coloured lithograph of 1826 style themselves as L Bump and J Lump (both British artists active in 1826, probably fictional names). Franz Gall had a lectured in London in 1823 and Spurzheim in Edinburgh in 1824.

George Combe was a Scottish lawyer and writer on Phrenology and education. In 1820, he founded the Edinburgh Phrenological Society and his major works were: “ Elements of Phrenology” (1824) and “The Constitution of Man” (1828). Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, USA

Fig. 4
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by Daumier Honoré (1808-1879)

in “Bureau de la Némésis médicale”, published by François Fabre (1797-1879), Paris, 1840, Edition 2, Tome II, p. 192

A phrenologist examines the head of a young child in the company of a man and woman. Skulls and busts are on shelves in the background.

Daumier Honorè was a famous French printmaker, caricaturist, painter and sculptor of the 19th century. He joined with Charles Philippon (1800-1861) who launched the comic journals La Caricature (1830) and later Le Charivari (1832). Other French caricaturists were included such as: Paul Gavarni (1804-1866), Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard Grandville (1803-1847), Achille Jacques-Jean-Marie Devéria (1800-1857), Denis Auguste Marie Raffet (1804-1860) and André Gill (1840-1885). Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, USA


  • Browne, James P., ‘Memoir of the late Mr James De Ville’ , Phrenological Journal, 19, pp. 329-344, 1846
  • ‘Mr De Ville’s Collection’, Phrenological Journal, 14, pp. 19-23, 1841
  • Kaufman, M H. Circumstances surrounding the examination of the skull and brain of George Combe (1788-1858) advocate of phrenology. Proceedings of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh 25 (4): 663-74, 1995
  • Wright, Peter. “George Combe: phrenologist, philosopher, psychologist (1788-1858)” . Cortex 41 (4) 447-51, 2005