Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa



Like many nineteenth-century sciences, phrenology had global aspirations. Skulls were collected in Egypt and Ceylon, societies exchanged journals between India and the United States, and phrenological bestsellers were sold in Shanghai and Tokyo. Despite this wealth of interaction, existing accounts treat phrenology within neat national and urban settings. In contrast, this article examines phrenology as a global political project. During an age in which character dominated public discourse, phrenology emerged as a powerful political language. In this article, I examine the role that correspondence played in establishing material connections between phrenologists and their political concerns, ranging from the abolition of slavery to the reform of prison discipline. Two overarching arguments run throughout my case-studies. First, phrenologists used correspondence to establish reform as a global project. Second, phrenology allowed reformers to present their arguments in terms of a new understanding of human character. More broadly, this article connects political thought with the global history of science.

Corresponding author
Darwin College, University of Cambridge, Silver Street, Cambridge, cb3 9eu
Hide All

Janet Browne, Simon Schaffer, Jim Secord, Sujit Sivasundaram, Alice Poskett, and three anonymous referees all provided invaluable feedback on earlier drafts of this article. I would like to thank the Master and Fellows of both Trinity College and Darwin College at the University of Cambridge for supporting my research, first under the Tarner Studentship and then as the Adrian Research Fellow. The British Society for the History of Science and the Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard University provided additional funding for archival work in Scotland and the United States respectively, for which I am most grateful.

Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

S. Sivasundaram , ‘Sciences and the global: on methods, questions, and theory’, Isis , 101 (2010), pp. 146–58

S. Shapin , ‘Phrenological knowledge and the social structure of early nineteenth-century Edinburgh’, Annals of Science , 32 (1975), pp. 219–43

L. Jacyna , ‘The physiology of mind, the unity of nature, and the moral order in Victorian thought’, British Journal for the History of Science , 14 (1981), pp. 109–32

G. Eley , ‘Historicizing the global, politicizing capital: giving the present a name’, History Workshop Journal , 63 (2007), pp. 154–88

F. Driver , ‘Global times and spaces: on historicizing the global’, History Workshop Journal , 64 (2007), pp. 321–2

D. Stack , ‘William Lovett and the National Association for the Political and Social Improvement of the People’, Historical Journal , 42 (1999), pp. 1027–50

P. Joyce , ‘What is the social in social history?’, Past and Present , 206 (2010), pp. 213–48

L. Taub , ‘Introduction: reengaging with instruments’, Isis , 102 (2011), pp. 689–96

T. Haskell , ‘Capitalism and the origins of the humanitarian sensibility, Part 1’, American Historical Review , 90 (1985), pp. 339–61

R. Huzzey , ‘The moral geography of British anti-slavery responsibilities’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society , 22 (2012), pp. 111–39

S. Collini , ‘The idea of “character” in Victorian political thought’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society , 35 (1985), pp. 2950

A. Secord , ‘Corresponding interests: artisans and gentlemen in nineteenth-century natural history’, British Journal for the History of Science , 27 (1994), pp. 383408

P. McCandless , ‘Mesmerism and phrenology in antebellum Charleston: “Enough of the marvelous”’, Journal of Southern History , 58 (1992), pp. 199230

‘Phrenological facts’, American Phrenological Journal , 7 (1845), pp. 21–3

C. Caldwell , ‘Phrenology vindicated’, Annals of Phrenology , 1 (1833), pp. 1102

‘On the American scheme of establishing colonies of free negro emigrants on the coast of Africa’, Phrenological Journal , 8 (1832–4), pp. 145–60

F. Douglass , ‘The color line’, North American Review , 132 (1881), pp. 567–77

[ G. Combe ], ‘Norfolk Island – reform in convict treatment’, Phrenological Journal , 15 (1842), pp. 2232

[ G. Combe ], ‘Education in America’, Edinburgh Review , 73 (1841), pp. 486502

S. Sivasundaram , ‘Introduction: global histories of science’, Isis , 101 (2010), pp. 95–7

J. Secord , ‘Knowledge in transit’, Isis , 95 (2004), pp. 654–72

S. Hodges , ‘The global menace’, Social History of Medicine , 25 (2012), pp. 719–28

‘Miscellany’, American Phrenological Journal , 5 (1843), p. 288

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The Historical Journal
  • ISSN: 0018-246X
  • EISSN: 1469-5103
  • URL: /core/journals/historical-journal
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 11
Total number of PDF views: 98 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 515 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 22nd July 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.