North Devon in 100 Objects: 26. The Phrenological Head

A phrenological head.

This ceramic head has been part of our collection for 175 years – longer than almost any other object.  It was given to the Barnstaple Literary and Scientific Institution by Dr.Richard Budd (1809-1896), who was the physician at the North Devon Infirmary for over 40 years.

The 19th century pseudoscience of phrenology rested on the assumption that personal characteristics were located in different parts of the brain. These, it was claimed, could be located precisely and their ‘size’ would be reflected in the development of the bones of the skull, so that a person’s character traits could be determined by measuring their head’s irregularities or ‘bumps’.

In 1820 the Phrenological Society was established in Edinburgh.  Ten years later Richard Budd, one of nine sons of the surgeon Samuel Budd, was studying medicine there and was impressed with this new ‘science’.  He acquired and brought with him to Barnstaple a demonstration porcelain human head, its surface divided into character areas.  It was accompanied by a diagram identifying the characteristic areas of the skull, and with this to hand the phrenologist might determine how ‘conscientious’ or ‘combative’ or ‘mirthful ‘or indeed ‘alimentive’ (food loving) or ‘amative’ a person was!

In July 1845 a series of lectures was held at the newly established Barnstaple Literary and Scientific Institution presenting the ‘science’ of phrenology to the people of Barnstaple.  The following year Dr Budd presented the porcelain head to the collection, which later became part of the North Devon Athenaeum.

A old poster advertising phrenology lectures.

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