The Science of Phrenology

The image above shows, Whig Party Presidential Candidate and 12th President of the United States, Zachary Taylor being examined by Orsen S. Fowler. This depiction was done during Taylor’s 1848 campaign for the Presidency. Was this some sort of medical exam to show his medical fitness for Presidential service? No, well not quite. Zachary Taylor was being examined be a renowned phrenologist while a report sat in on the exam taking notes. The drawing depicts the reporter asking questions of the phrenologist, Fowler, and of Fowler taking measurements of Taylor’s head. This was done to gather information on what kind of president Taylor would be.

Olsen S Fowler  was a practitioner of a well renowned and widely accepted science of the early 19th century called Phrenology. Phrenology is the study of the human brain through the measurements of the skull. Phrenologists held several theories to be true: The brain is an organ that is a part of the system known as the mind, that certain parts of the brain controlled certain personality traits, these parts were topographically located on the human brain, and more pronounced personality traits would have an enlarged coinciding part of the brain, and that the skull forms in relation to the shape of the brain. Phrenologists would measure the size of the skull and feel for certain deformities in the skull. The would correlate these observations with a chart that is featured in the slide show below.

Phrenology began in Europe with observations made by Franz Joseph Gall around 1795. His student Johann Gaspar Spurzheim is credited with popularizing the idea through Europe and America. Spurzheim came to Boston in 1832 and began to lecture on the subject. However an American named Charles Caldwell had began to study and lecture on the topic after his visit to France in the 1820s. Caldwell would write Elements of Phrenology and found the University of Louisville School of Medicine . Later The Fowler Brothers, Lorenzo and Orson would read Spurzheim and others’ works on phrenology. They would go on to create the American Phrenological Journal. The leading journal on the topic in America at that time.

There is an interesting story connecting Phrenology and Slavery  here: Django Unchained and the racist science of phrenology

So what did Fowler find out about the 12th President of the United States, Zachary Taylor?

Among the long list of Taylor’s characteristics that Greeley and Fowler have compiled are: “A Quick Fiery Temper,” “A lack of self respect,” and “Disregard for things Sacred.” Each of these falls under a broader category, such as “Combativeness,” which is accompanied by a number designating its degree of “development.” The number six indicates an ideal level of development, anything lower being deficient. Seven, the highest possible score, was excessive. Here Taylor scores a seven in “Combativeness,” but only receives a one for “Self Esteem.” In “Firmness” he receives a fourteen, making him remarkably “Obstinate & Mulish.”


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Riegel, Robert E. “The Introduction of Phrenology to the United States.” The American Historical Review 39, no. 1 (1933): 73-78.

Robinson, Henry R., -1850. The candidate of many parties. A phrenological examination to ascertain what his political principles are. New York: Lithd. & published by H.R. Robinson, 1848. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,