Phrenology canes

During the Victorian era, Phrenology, related to the history of medicine, was taken seriously and permeated the literature and novels of the day. Many prominent public figures such as the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher (a college classmate and initial partner of Orson Fowler, and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) promoted phrenology actively as a source of psychological insight and a means for better understanding of oneself; i.e. greater insight into one’s own motives or character. Thousands of people consulted phrenologists for advice in various matters, such as hiring personnel or finding suitable marriage partners. As such, phrenology as a brain science waned but developed into the popular psychology of the 19th century.

Franz Joseph Gall, who originated the theory of Phrenology, was born in 1758 in Tiefenbronn, Germany and died in Paris in 1828.  He studied medicine in Strasbourg and Vienna, focusing his research in two areas. His most notorious research was in craniofacial morphology which gradually evolved into the pseudo science of phrenology. His second research area was neuroanatomy. Although best remembered for his discreditable introduction of phrenology, his neuroanatomic contributions have had more lasting significance. Dr. Gall was the first to describe the origins of several cranial nerves, including the trigeminal nucleus. It is apparent that Dr. Gall was a pioneer in the description of brain stem anatomy.

Picture courtesy of Youssef Kadri

The study of the skull protuberances as relating to character traits and intellect was very controversial, and Dr. Gall was forbidden to practice Phrenology in his native Germany, where it was banned in 1802. He continued using the method in London and Paris until his death. Others also practiced it off and on through the 19th century.

The American brothers Lorenzo Niles Fowler (1811–1896) and Orson Squire Fowler (1809–1887) were leading phrenologists of their time. Orson, together with associates Samuel Wells and Nelson Sizer, ran the Phrenological business and publishing house Fowler & Wells in New York City. Meanwhile, Lorenzo spent much of his life in England where he initiated the famous phrenological publishing house, L.N Fowler & Co., and gained considerable fame with his phrenology head (a porcelain china head showing the phrenological faculties; see picture below ca. 1865), which has become a symbol of the discipline.

Above: A scarce and worthy English cane related to the history of medicine with an ivory knob on its slender ebony shaft with tall bone ferrule. Shaped as a man’s head with smooth edges, the 2-1/2″ high knob is engraved with various areas of the skull and their numbered decoding info on the shoulder. Dark stain reveals the delicate, shadow-like engraving and makes the inscriptions visible to the eye and easily readable. In a field where alterations and restorations occur frequently, this 19th century cane is appreciable for its entirely original condition and ennobled by the right portion of wear and warm age patina. Furthermore it has the crossover appeal of associating with more than one collecting field to augment its value and radiates this indescribable special flair a collector’s soul loves. Indeed it is a precious contemporary relic of the great days of early empirical medicine and of Franz Joseph Gall, the founder of the Phrenology theory. Overall length 34″. For a similar object see C. Dike’s book, Cane Curiosa, Chapter 23, Medicine and Invalids, P. 233, 23/14.

Phrenology-20th century example
Above: Ivory head, 20th century example.
Above: Ivory head, 19th century


Above: Porcelain head, ca. 1865.

2. Pictures and descriptions courtesy of Youssef Kadri.

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