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Phrenology and Robert Burns

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Phrenology and Robert Burns


"Hi! I'm Kirsty from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow and today I want to talk to you about Phrenology. Phrenology is a pseudoscience that was really popular in the first half of the 1800s. Now, a pseudoscience is something that claims to be a science, but actually has no scientific basis.

Phrenology involves measuring bumps of the skull to determine the mental trait of a person. The idea behind this was that the brain was actually split into several different organs, different areas and each area could be localized to a different function and a different mental trait. So, the stronger a mental trait was in someone the bigger the brain area and therefore the bigger the bump on the skull that was being measured!

It was pioneered by a man called George Combe who was actually a lawyer. He particularly liked to measure the skulls of famous people. One such famous person was Audubon, who is the man behind the Birds of America books, which we have a copy of in the College. Someone that they wanted to measure actually wasn't alive and that man was Robert Burns.

Robert Burns is the well-known Scottish poet from the 18th century. Burns had died in 1796, so it wasn't until the 1830s that phrenologists were able to get access to Burns' skull when his wife passed away. The phrenologists exhumed Burns' body and sent it to Combe for measurement. Several replicas of Robert Burns' skullcast exist and in fact at the College just now we have a loan of Robert Burns' skullcast replica. This has been loaned from the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow for our current exhibition. Through digital technology we were able to 3D scan the replica cast of Robert Burns' skull and create a 3D model, which is online for everyone to view. This gives people more access to such an incredible heritage item!

Phrenology was eventually debunked as a pseudoscience. Phrenology actually paved the way for something called Cerebral Localization- this is the theory that different parts of the brain have different functions and the brain can be mapped. This is something that is very evident in neuroscience."