My Experience with Phrenology

Home » W.T. Stead and The Review of Reviews » My Experience with Phrenology

My Experience with Phrenology

W. T. Stead (The Review of Reviews, vol. IV, November, 1891, p. 600

It is ten years ago, as nearly as I can remember, when one night after dinner an editorial friend of mine began to make disparaging remarks upon my cranium. I was his guest at the time in the North of England, and his criticisms, although severe, were perfectly good-humoured.


He said: “It is a little head; it is a badly shaped head; there is nothing to show that there is anything inside it; and altogether it is a discreditable head for any well-regulated citizen to have upon his shoulders.” He was so persistent about it, and so serious withal, that I challenged him to a competitive examination of our heads the next time we were both together within range of a phrenologist; and I, for my part, expressed perfect readiness to abide by the verdict. About a year later, when the Irish Land Bill was in the throes between the House of Lords and the House of Commons, my journalistic friend called on me at Northumberland Street. I had not been twelve months in London, and was entirely unknown. When my friend appeared I reminded him of his promise, and we walked down to Ludgate Circus in search of Professor Fowler, who was to adjudicate upon the respective merits of our skulls. When we got to the Phrenological Institute the Professor was out; but Miss Fowler volunteered to act in his stead. We took chairs opposite each other, and explained the nature of our visit.


We said nothing as to our name, profession, calling, or anything else beyond the fact that my friend had abused my head and stuck to it, and that I had repelled his accusations, and that we had adjourned the case to her decision. It was agreed that she had to examine my head first, and whenever she discovered that I had an exceptionally good or bad development, she had to cross over to him and see whether he was equally blessed or cursed. For the next hour we three—Miss Fowler, my friend and myself—laughed more heartily and continuously than we have done in the same space of time before or since. My friend was a Scotchman with a big head, and he beat me all to pieces when we came to measurement. The tape showed him to be two inches more round the head than I was. But I had my innings when it came to the analysis in detail of our phrenological developments. After about an hour of close, comparative analysis, the verdict and effect was that my friend had a bigger head, but that I had a better one—better in the sense of being quicker; otherwise we were very evenly matched. It is obvious that such a comparison between the heads of total strangers, who were, however, well known to each other, and capable of testing the accuracy of each statement, whether about one or the other, was about as severe a test as could be devised by the wit of man; and I remember to this day the wonderfully accurate fashion in which Miss Fowler hit off our respective characteristics, with a nicety which could not have been excelled if she had grown up with us from our childhood.

Another thing which struck me very much was the rapidity with which she seized the general idea of my character from an almost momentary touch. She hardly laid her hand upon my head before she began to tell me the salient outlines of my character. Afterwards, when the comparison became closer, sha felt the head more closely; and it was extraordinary and, if there be no truth in phrenology, little short of miraculous, that a young lady who had never met me before, and did not know me from Adam, should have been as acute in her delineation cf my character. I remember Canon Liddon was very much struck when I told him of some of her definitions. He was especially struck by her remark that I approached the whole problem of religion from the side of sympathy with human beings, and not at all from the side of veneration or adoration of the Supreme Being.


It only remains for me to add the deductions which I draw from them. Broadly speaking, they tend to confirm my first impression that there is a good deal in phrenology, quite enough to make it well worth while for teachers and parents to submit the heads of their children to phrenological examination. If the greatest problem in life is to find the line along which you can develop most easily—the greatest capacity with the least resistance—then surely the aid of phrenology should not be ignored. Of the moral aspect of phrenology I need say nothing more than this, that like most of the modern sciences it tends towards charity.