George Combe1788–1858

Edinburgh phrenologist

It has been said that “Phrenology first took root, first flourished and first bore its inestimable fruits in the city of Edinburgh”. This is a reference to the city in which the first Phrenological Society was founded, but also to the forces behind its foundation – George and Andrew Combe. The Edinburgh Phrenological Society was founded in 1820, following a visit to the city by Spurzheim four years earlier. An anonymous and particularly vitriolic attack on phrenology was published in the Edinburgh Review of 1815 (the author was an Edinburgh physician and lecturer, John Gordon), and Spurzheim sought to rebut it. During his visit he enlisted the support of George Combe, largely because of the impact phrenology was thought to have on the lot of the common man. Combe became an acolyte and wrote extensively on phrenology, both furthering its appeal and answering critics. His response to Roget’s attack was typical, and he wrote of Roget: “This author, like every other anatomist, industriously keeps out of view the principles on which the true merits of the system must be decided, and which have been so often repeated. He collects only such superficial objections as have a tendency to delude without enlightening. He does not advance one idea of his own upon the subject; but sets himself to throw all manner of suspicion upon those of Gall and Spurzheim. In short, he is one of the ‘philosophers who darken, and put out – eternal truth by everlasting doubt’”. Combe’s portrait is matched with a phrenological head taken from his book Elements of Phrenology.