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Talking Heads:
Phrenology at the Countway Library of Medicine

Why do we act the way we do? What determines the patterns of our behavior and personality? While psychology and, now, genetics are used today to wrestle with these eternal questions, the 19th century found its own very different explanation in phrenology, the study of human cranial structures and their implications for human nature and character. More than just reading bumps on the head, phrenology had a complex theoretical framework and a long history of development. The movement fostered great interest among scientists and the public in Boston, the United States, and Europe. "Talking Heads," a new exhibit at the Countway Library, draws on the Countway's rich collection of books, manuscripts, artwork, and artifacts to explore the basis for phrenological study, major figures associated with it, and Boston's own unique place in the history of this popular movement.

Highlights of the exhibit include texts and medals of Franz Joseph Gall, the founder of phrenology, and manuscripts, books, a silhouette, and an oil painting of J. G. Spurzheim, Gall's assistant, who came to evangelize Boston with the new science in 1834. In the mid-19th century, Orson and Lorenzo Fowler turned phrenology into a wildly profitable business, seeking to improve the lot of mankind through teaching, lecturing, and reading heads. Samples of the Fowlers' character readings, symbolic heads, and popular phrenology manuals are on display—along with some of the satiric prints inspired by the movement. Publications, advertisements, and historical records of the British Phrenological Society—active until 1967—testify to the enduring fascination of this peculiar study of skulls.

"Talking Heads" will be on display from April 15 through October 4 on the L-2 level of the Countway Library of Medicine. For further information, contact Jack Eckert, reference librarian, at 2-6207 or jack_eckert@hms.harvard.edu.

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Last modified on Thursday, April 18, 2002.