By John van Wyhe

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The History of Phrenology on the Web (

by John van Wyhe

Charles Gibbon, The Life of George Combe: Author of "The Constitution of Man.", 2 vols., Macmillan and Co., London, 1878.

This file has not been corrected and is provided as is.

This is volume 1.








[The Right of Translation and Reproduction is Reserved.]


preface, ......... *x
introduction, ....... xl


Autobiography—Birth— Livingston's Yards—Parents—Eesi-
' dence at Redheughs Farm—The Parish School—Over­
crowding—AnExperiment with Sugar-Candy—St Leonard's
Hill—The Press-Gang—Absence of Rational Teaching and
Preaching, ......... 1-16


Autobiography Continued—The High School—System of Educa­tion there—Discipline—Mr Swanston's School—Favourable Influence of the Presence of Girls'-—Characteristics of the Time—Home Occupations—The Love of Animals—The War—The Edinburgh Volunteers—Sufferings of the Poor— Flogging in the Army—The Manners of the Day—An Execution—Superstition, ....... 17-35


Autobiography Continued—Warlike Amusements—Religious Instruction—Sunday Tasks—Learning and Understanding the Catechism—A Child's Impression of the Crucifixion— •Calvinism—Sir Henry Moncreiff—Effect of Gall's Discovery _Faith and Conscientiousness—Practical Education— Parental Authority—Mistakes in Training the Young— Inconsistencies in School and Church, .... 36-53


Autobiography Concluded—Famine in Scotland—Straits of the Combe Family—The Theatre—The University—Early Belief in Justice—Teaching Younger Brothers and Sisters _The Desire of Fame—The Question of a Profession or Trade—Apprenticed to a Writer to the Signet—George Hogarth—An Elocution Class, ...... 54-68


Contents. CHAPTER V.


1804-1815—Apprenticeship—Studies—Development of Cha­racter—Peter Couper, W.S.—Literary and Political Influ­ences—First Thoughts of Writing a Book—Self-Examina-tion—Prospects in Life—Religious Sentiments—Gratitude to God—Good 'for Evil—Fear of Death—Self-Control— Conduct in Private Life—Essay on Law and Lawyers— " The Forum "—Beginning Business—Economy—Excur­sions to St. Andrews and the Trossachs—Prices of Provisions in 1812—Robert Cox, Gorgie Mill—Death of George Combe, Senior, .........

CHAPTER VI. 1815-1818—Philosophy of the Mind—The Edinburgh Review

—Spurzheim in Edinburgh—How Combe became a Phrenologist—His First Observations—Alarm of Friends

—Success—His Business Life—First Essay in the Scots Magazine—A Tour—Brighton Sixty Years Ago—Journey to Paris—Metz—French Roads and Diligence Travelling— Napoleon—The Royal Family of France—Waterloo—Sir G. S. Mackenzie—Edinburgh in 1818—Anatomy of the




1819-1821—George and Andrew Combe—Progress in Phreno­

logy—Proposed Lectures—Character of Miss Combe—
Death of Mrs Combe—Reflections on the Future State—
Essays on Phrenology—Dr P. M. Roget—Publication of
the Essays—Prejudices against them—Recognition of their
Merits—Macvey Napier—Principal Baird—Spurzheim—
Phrenological Society Founded—Death of James Combe—
Eobert Owen's New Lanark—Dr Chalmers—Opposition to
the New Doctrines—Ancient Phrenologists—The "Turnip
Head"—The Case of David Haggart—Dr Abernethy's
Pamphlet. ......... 115-143


1822-1824—Phrenological Society's Hall—Combe's Coadjutors

—Rev. David Welsh, D.D.—Phrenology an Estimative Science—Method of Investigation—Utility of the System

—First Course of Lectures—William Hazlitt—Preparing Lectures—Invitation to Lecture in London—Rev. George Croly—Transactions of the Phrenological Society—The PhrenologicalJournal—Owenism—Education—Phrenology in London—Ireland and its People, ..... 144-176


' Contents.



1825-1827—Position of Phrenology—Combe's Manner in Debate—Brougham as an Orator—Toleration—A Fraudu­lent Clerk—Essay on " Human Responsibility"—Problems in Religion—Revelation, the Mind and the Physical World—Abuses of Religion—" The Constitution of Man"


—Jeffrey's Attack—Controversy with Sir William Hamil­ton—The Frontal Sinus—Correspondence—Practical Ser­mons — Abram Combe — Orbiston — Communities and Co-operation, .........


1828-30—Spurzheim in Edinburgh—His Character—Death of Gall—Publication of the " Constitution of Man "—Pre­judices against the Work and the Author—The Infant School—Lecturing in Dublin—Experiments at Public Institutions—Dr W. E. Charming—Projected Work on Moral Philosophy—True Religion—Prayer—Professional Duties—Scottish Journalists—Fanny Kemble—The Phren­ological Organs—Lectures, ...... 209-234


1831-1833—The Phrenological Society—Essay "On Human Capability of Improvement"—When to Proclaim Truth

—The Church and Phrenology—Rev. Dr Welsh withdraws from the Society—Evangelical Religion and Phrenology Irreconcilable—Illness of Dr Combe, and his Work on Insanity—Politics—At Craigcrook—First Edinburgh Elec­tion under the Reform Bill—Conservatives and Reformers

—Freedom of Opinion—The Working Classes—The Henderson Bequest—Archbishop Whately — Death of


Spurzheim—Miss Cecilia Siddons—Marriage, CHAPTER XII.

1834-1836 — Domestic Arrangements — The Scotsman — The London Courier — His Political Views — Church and State—Continental Tour—Characteristics of the Dutch, Germans, and Swiss—German Translations of his Works

—The Factories Act—Phrenology—Lectures—Newcastle-on-Tyne—The Aberdonians—The Chair of Logic in the Edinburgh University—Dr Neill and Professor Duncan

—Revelation and Nature—Logic and Phrenology—Retiring

from the Legal Profession, ...... 299-335



/ol. I., Page 32, twelfth line from top, for "persume," read presume, „ 82, eighth line from foot, for " £2," read £20. „ 216, fifteenth line from top, for "mers," read mere. ,, 229, fifteenth line from foot, for " Abraham," read Abram. Vol. II., Page 371, fifteenth line from foot, for "Peterkin," read "Dr James Browne."

few men have left such ample materials for a bio­graphy as George Combe; and if the whole man is not revealed in the following pages, the fault is en­tirely due to the biographer. Profound faith in the importance of Phrenology and in the philosophical and educational theories he evolved from it,—which consti­tuted the chief interests of his life,—induced Mr Combe to preserve all letters addressed to him in relation to these subjects. He made no selection, but preserved with equal care those containing praise and those containing blame. From 1820 he kept copies of all his own letters; these occupy eleven large quarto volumes of 700 to 800 pages each, and six smaller volumes which he used when travelling. In addition, he left thirty journals, in which he recorded the chief events of his life, the ideas that occurred to him for use in his works, and, occasionally, extracts from the books he read which had any bearing on the subjects of his thought. My endeavour has been: first, to tell the story of his life as nearly as practicable chronologically and in his own words; second, to show the growth of his mind and character with as few repetitions as possible; and third, to keep the


x Preface.

exposition of the mass of materials presented to me •within moderate bounds, without sacrificing anything characteristic of the man or his principles.

I am greatly indebted to Sir James Coxe, the nephew of Combe, familiar with his ways and doctrines, and editor of the last edition of his works; to Mr John Ritchie Findlay, who was an intimate friend; and to Dr Arthur Mitchell,—three of Mr Combe's Literary Trustees,—for their assistance in revising the proof sheets, and for their valuable corrections and sug­gestions.

For the convenience of readers, a brief explanation of the Phrenological terms used in the work is given in the Appendix, No. II.


groye house, champion hill, london, 14* January 1878.


the name of George Combe is now rarely heard in scientific or philosophical circles—seldom even in those of the advo­cates and practisers of that system of advanced education for the adoption of which he struggled hard and endured much abuse. But he is still a prophet to many men, and the spirit of his teaching has its place amongst unseen influences on modern thought. It is to be regretted that circumstances have delayed the publication of his biography until nearly twenty years after his death; because so much that was new and startling in his mouth has become an accepted part of the intellectual systems of to-day, that it will be difficult for readers to comprehend the bitterness of the opposition with which he had to contend. His anxieties may appear to be unnecessary self-inflictions, and the caution with which he directed his most daring flights instead of bearing its real signification of wise self-control, is apt to be confounded with mere prudence. Prudent in the highest sense, he was fearful of doing wrong; but having clearly realised a prin­ciple, he was fearless. These were the qualities which enabled him to bear present contumely, confident of future honour.

His first reflexions were full of doubt as to his position in this world, and of dismay regarding the next. He found a principle, and from that time his course became clear to him.


Life of George Combe.



His actions and opinions became decisive—so decisive, that to the many who did not understand the earnestness of his convic­tions he appeared dogmatic. The principle which guided him through life was this: that there is a direct Divine moral government of the world; that the government is one of bene­volence, and that its laws are plainly written in Nature for the direction of man. Phrenology led him to these convictions, and they formed the stand-point from which he viewed all the affairs of the world. His judgment thus based, proved gener­ally correct in regard to affairs of the moment, and fre­quently almost prophetic in regard to the future.

He was reared in the gloom which was formerly a predo­minant characteristic of Calvinism in Scotland. A feeble frame and an impressionable nature rendered the mental and physi­cal condition of his boyhood painful. A strange, thoughtful child, seeking reasons for everything, and dissatisfied until they were found, he grew into an earnest man, fervid in all his thoughts and acts. To the end, life was serious to him—most serious when he had a pen in his hand. The vital problems of religion early occupied his mind with anxious speculations. The terrors of eternal perdition weighed upon him, and the first glimpses of the light in which he saw the beneficence of God dazzled and bewildered him. The limited communication of the time localised ideas; and the expression of anything heterodox was visited with social penalties on the person who uttered it. When Combe first asserted, for instance, that Mind was a function of the brain, he was denounced as an infidel and a would-be subverter of religion. He cast aside all per­sonal considerations, and hazarded his professional prospects to proclaim Divine truth as he apprehended it.

From 1817 till 1836, whilst faithfully discharging the duties of a Writer to the Signet, he was engaged in constant and fierce warfare in defence of Phrenology, and of the principles proclaimed in the " Constitution of Man;" he was advocating practical education; and, at the close of the period, standing

as a candidate for the Chair of Logic in the Edinburgh Uni­versity. From 1837, when with a modest competence he retired from the legal profession to devote the remainder of his life to science and philosophy, till 1844, he travelled in England, America, and Germany, and frequently lectured on Phrenology, education, physiology, the laws of health, and the sources of the well-being of nations. From 1845 till 1858 he was the leader in the great struggle for Secular Edu­cation, the earnest advocate of prison reform, an expounder of the Currency Question, aud was maturing those views on religion which found their final expression in 1857, in his work "On the Eelation between Science and Religion."

Phrenology was in his eyes the key to all knowledge. He approached it at first in a spirit of scepticism; study and observation convinced him of its truth: he became its most able exponent, and more popular in this respect than either of its founders—Gall and Spurzheim. His devotion to it was intense; he viewed life entirely through its medium; he attributed to his knowledge of it all the good he tried to do and was able to accomplish; and he was too much inclined to think that all the failures of mankind were due to ignorance of its principles. He regarded it as a mixture of science and philosophy—science in its relation to the structure, and philosophy in its relation to the functions of the brain. It represented to him the most complete philosophy of mind. He did not believe that it was complete in itself : no system could be so in a progressive world; but he believed that it was the most complete of the time, and that it would grow and improve with every new discovery. His leading Phreno­logical doctrines were these: that the brain is the organ of mind; that size is a measure of power, other things being equal; that the formation of the skull bears a relation to the character of the mind, and that efficient moral and intellectual training will influence the development and action of the brain, as physical exercise affects the power and size of the


Life of George Combe.



muscles. On these doctrines he based his theories of religion, education, the treatment of the insane, and prison discipline, which have spread and been absorbed unconsciously into the practices of others, without recognition of the source whence they were derived. The spirit of all his philosophy was that of benignity, of love for all created things, and of entire faith in the wisdom and justice of God, however incomprehensible their manifestation might appear to him in the present stage of his knowledge.

In religion he desired to obey the laws plainly expressed in nature, and he left the rest to God. He believed that the world is constituted in harmony with the moral sentiments : virtue is its own reward was the lesson he sought persistently and in many forms to inculcate. The conviction that good brings forth good, and evil brings forth evil in the moral and in the physical world, inspired his every action and every sentence he wrote. His creed was—" Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God." And he exemplified it in his conduct. His sense of justice embraced trifles with as much respect as others pay to the most important duties; and his sense of mercy extended to the worst of criminals. He was devout in his reverence for God's laws; and he repu­diated the idea of supernatural suspension of their action. He was unswerving in his claim for the right of every man to worship according to his own conscience ; and he desired the removal of the Church Catechisms from the list of com­pulsory text-books in schools and colleges.

He desired that Education should be practical; that instead of instructing children in mere words—which was all that the majority acquired in the laborious waste of time spent in efforts to learn Greek and Latin—they should be trained in such knowledge as would be applicable to the duties they would have to perform in life. From his own experience at the High School of Edinburgh, and his obser­vation of the teaching in other schools, he began in 1827 to

advocate, 1st, the extensive use in all schools of objects illus­trative of nature; 2nd, that the pupils should be taught, in addition to the customary rudiments of education—natural history, biography, the history of foreign countries, of their productions, natural and artificial, and the principles of their trade, moneys, and mode of transacting business, in order that children might be brought to understand the natural laws that govern production, and the civil laws which regu­late the transactions of men in different states; and, 3d, that the physical conditions necessary to health should form a principal part of general instruction. In this system he included nearly all that in after years he laboured so fer­vently to promote under the name of Secular Education. He persistently argued that it was of the first importance to the State that every one of its children should have an efficient education in order to produce useful citizens; and he insisted on the right of every man to his own form of religion; there­fore he advocated the separation of the teaching of creeds from that teaching which is necessary to all sects alike. His Secularism was in no way antagonistic to religion.

In criminal legislation, he was opposed to capital punish­ment ; and in prison discipline, he desired that the influence of the brain in determining character should be taken into account. He wished the criminal to be reformed rather than that ven­geance should be wreaked upon him. He would, therefore, have had him placed under conditions which would enable him to realise the advantages of moral conduct, and to work out his own redemption by industry and reformed habits. Meanwhile he urged the legislature to strike at the root of crime by providing for the children of all classes a thorough system of moral training. He did not expect the good result to ap­pear m one or two generations; but the result would come, and he considered that a century was of small account in the history of a nation.

His profound conviction that man's nature was progressive

Life of George Combe.


and capable of improvement, rendered him an optimist in all his views. His life was full of activity, of earnest, methodical, and patient work. His sincerity in all that he undertook entitles even his errors to respect. Although precise and formal in manner, he was full of sympathy for every honest endeavour, and of pity for every human failing. His aims were always noble, and the whole purpose of his work and thought was to help his fellowmen. He had the qualities which attracted and retained the affection as well as the admiration of cultivated minds ; and his interest in the pro­gress of the world was so active to the last that his reading and observation were always abreast of the time, thus ena­bling him to be in his old age the intellectual companion of new generations of thinkers, into whose speculations he entered with the fervour of youth, controlled by experience. He had no great variations of fortune to distract him, no great domestic afflictions to distress him. The death of his brother, Dr Andrew Combe, caused him much grief, but the event had been long expected and prepared for. He viewed the approach of his own end with calm reliance on the goodness of God, and gratitude for the years of usefulness and happiness which had been granted to him. In the closing days of a long life he saw the principles he had advocated making pro­gress ; and many of his large circle of relatives prospering and honoured in their various paths, carrying out in practice what he had taught in theory and in the conduct of his life. Much that he attempted has been accomplished. He helped largely to overthrow many theological and social prejudices, and to forward the progress of society towards greater equality of condition and greater happiness by means of universal and unsectarian education. His teaching and his aims have been much misunderstood, but he was able to say: " In all the great characteristics of my life, I fear no tribunal where justice will be administered. I shall be found to have lived as I taught and wrote."




Edinburgh, 18th January 1858.—I have for sometime intended to write an outline of my life, and for two days past the thought has been forcibly "borne in upon me,"—to use a religious phrase,—that I should no longer delay executing my intention.

I was born on 21st October 1788, a day subsequently rendered memorable by being that on which the victory of Trafalgar was gained. My mother used to observe jocularly that my advent to the world prevented her from attending the public celebration of the centenary of the " Glorious Eevolu-tion" of 1688, which took place early in the November following the date of my birth. Whether the themes of liberty, which she would be hearing and reading about as that time approached, had any effect in modifying the cerebral organism of her babe, I do not know; but certain it is that she then gave birth to a child whose ruling passion through life was to act the part of a reformer.

My birthplace was at Livingston's Yards, close under the south-west bank and rock of the Castle of Edinburgh. The

2 Life of George Combe.

locality was low: to the east a Scotch acre of ground was a filthy swamp in winter, and covered with dunghills in summer. All round, to the east and south, were tan-works and a magnesia-work, which poured their refuse into open ditches with small declivity. The public drain, charged with the soil of the Grassmarket and Westport, two humble localities of Edin­burgh, ran past the dwelling-house uncovered; and the house itself was attached to my father's brewery. A more unhealthy residence can scarcely be conceived. To the north and west were gardens belonging to my father, and let to a market-gardener, and beyond them corn-fields. As the windows of the house looked in these directions, the view from them was open and cheerful, and gave the promise of health, which, however, the other influences destroyed.*

The house consisted of two stories; but contained only two rooms, a kitchen, and bed-closet on the lower, and three rooms and a very small bed-closet on the upper floor. About the year 1797 or 1798 an additional room and bed-closet were built. The family, about the year 1800, included our parents, thirteen children, and servants, all crowded into these few rooms of small dimensions; and the laws of health, depending on ventilation, ablution, and exercise were wholly unknown. The mind was regarded as independent of the body, and every one acted on this hypothesis.

These details may appear uninteresting to many persons, but they describe the causes of many deaths in the family, and of much bad health in those who survived, and of a degree of feebleness in my own constitution which, although not con­genital, occasioned considerable suffering, and was with diffi-

* The locality no longer answers the description here given. The new approach to the High Street, by the road which skirts the Castle Eock, passes over the site of Livingston's Yards, and Scott and Croall's Horse Bazaar marks pretty nearly the spot where the brewery stood. The extension of the town, and the conversion of the swamp, which was formerly the bed of the North Loch, into the Princes Street Gardens, hare further greatly changed the sur­rounding district.

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