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Metropole of the mind: phrenology and the making of a global science, 1815-1923

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Phrenology had global aspirations. This novel mental science, which maintained that the brain was the organ of the mind, started life in late eighteenth-century Vienna. Throughout the Napoleonic Wars, the German physician Franz Joseph Gall travelled across Continental Europe, presenting his craniological principles to audiences in Berlin, Copenhagen and Amsterdam. In 1828, Gall died in Paris – his “doctrine of the skull” had not travelled far. But by the end of the nineteenth century, phrenology had emerged as a global science. Skulls were collected in Egypt and Ceylon, societies exchanged letters between India and the United States, and phrenological bestsellers were sold in Shanghai and Tokyo. Despite this wealth of interaction, existing accounts treat phrenology within neat national and urban settings. In contrast, this paper argues that phrenology must be reassessed in terms of global history. In doing so, it advances three core claims. First, phrenology traversed national, regional and imperial borders. It is only by recognising connections across the British, French and American imperial worlds that we can fully account for the emergence of science as a global form of knowledge. Second, conducting science on a global scale was an activity grounded in material culture. With this in mind, it becomes clear that the history of science needs to confront the limits and difficulties that this material world of capital imposed. Third, historians of science must address the global as an actors’ category. Phrenologists were not only aware of the world in which they lived, it also mattered to them.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Humanities and Social Sciences Group series.

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