14th June 1818

Death of the debunker of phrenology

Phrenology is the study of lumps and bumps on the skull, which some believe can predict mental illness and other conditions, since different parts of the brain, beneath those bumps, perform specific functions.

If any of those areas was more developed than others, phrenology suggested it could be responsible for the bump. Thus, mapping the bumps to specific functions could theoretically say something about the brain itself.

Phrenology in Scotland

Phrenology was particularly influential in Edinburgh in the first half of the nineteenth century, and the Edinburgh Phrenological Society was founded in 1820 by lawyer George Combe and his brother, the physician Andrew Combe.

Although it is correct that the brain has specific areas for particular functions, the practice of phrenology has been discounted by many who have studied it. One of those who gave it short shrift was anatomist John Gordon, who even as early as 1715 – before the founding of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society – had publicly debunked it.

Early success, early death

Gordon progressed remarkably far, remarkably quickly. He was a doctor of medicine by the age of 19, and appointed the president of the Royal Medical Society the following year. In 1815, he wrote a long piece for the Edinburgh Review criticising Franz Gall and Johann Spurzheim, the founders of phrenology.

Unfortunately for Gordon, doing so required that he explain what, exactly, phrenology was, which brought it to the attention of the wider public and made it more comprehensible. It seems unlikely this would have been his preferred outcome.

John Gordon died aged just 32, having achieved much in a very short life.



Other events that occured in June

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