Some fields of science have been around for millennia – there have been mathematicians ever since humans ran out of fingers and toes to count on. Others are more recent. Phrenology, the study of an assumed relationship between the size and shape of the human skull and individual or racial characteristics, is unusual in having a precise start date. It was announced to the world of medicine in 1796 by the German doctor Franz Joseph Gall.
In the following two centuries Gall’s ideas were elaborated on by a large number of followers, including criminologists, anthropologists and self-declared racists. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a devotee and his creation Sherlock Holmes relied on phrenological principles to deduce from the height and curve of his forehead that his nemesis Professor Moriarty was a criminal mastermind.
It is hard to find a practising phrenologist these days, but the discipline was once highly thought of in Whanganui. The Chronicle reported in 1879 on an examination of the prophet Te Whiti by one Professor Frazer, an eminent phrenologist. “The organs of memory are full,” he declared, “and the eye indicates plenty of language. His strong point, and the one most likely to influence, is his combination of spirituality, veneration and hope… The portion of the brain in which these organs are located is not only large, but active.”
Once phrenological credentials were established, other opportunities beckoned. Orson Fowler, declared by a pamphlet in the Whanganui Regional Museum to be “acknowledged by all classes as the most distinguished exponent now living of the science of phrenology”, evidently felt qualified to extend his wisdom to “the mutual relations of the sexes”. The flyer promotes his 1870 book Sexual Science which examines “that great code of natural laws by which the Almighty requires the sexes to be governed in their mutual relations”. Knowledge of these laws, it contends, is “of the highest importance, and it is the general ignorance of them among all classes which swells the list of diseases and misery in the world”.
The book is described as “pure and elevated in tone; eloquent in its denunciations of vice and forcible in its warnings against the secret sins which are practised with impunity in every community.” As you might expect, it provides practical advice, including “how to make a right choice of husband or wife; to judge a man or woman’s sexual condition by visible signs; to keep wives healthy and avoid sickly wives; to keep a husband faithful and avoid discord; to avoid the evils attending pregnancy; to manage children; to recognise the signs of self-abuse and cure it; and to raise healthy and vigorous girls fit to be wives and mothers”. It also offers useful information on how to promote the growth of the female bust.
Unfortunately the Museum does not hold a copy of Sexual Science, originally on sale at AD Willis bookshop for 25 shillings. Modern readers will have to make do with Eat, Pray, Love.
Frank Stark is Director of the Whanganui Regional Museum.