Phrenological bust by LN FowlerPhrenological bust by LN FowlerThe History of Phrenology on the Web

by John van Wyhe

Atkinson, Henry George (1812-90?)

Henry George Atkinson was the son of a wealthy London architect born in 1812 and died in Boulogne around 1890. Educated at Charterhouse in 1827 he became a Fellow of the Geological Society in 1836 though later resigned in 1877. Atkinson became a freethinker and interested in mesmerism, phrenology, materialism and naturalism. He was a member of the Phrenological Association. He published extensively on phrenology and phreno-mesmerism. In the 1860s he published on spiritualism. He was an ardent admirer of Francis Bacon and warmly supported the theory that Bacon was in fact the author of the works of Shakespeare. These views were published in Charles BRAY's National Reformer. Through mutual friends, the Basil Montagus, Atkinson related instructions on mesmerism to the well-known author Harriet MARTINEAU during her five years illness. She attributed her recovery in November 1844 to mesmerism. MARTINEAU and Atkinson met in 1845. They later published their correspondence as Letters on the Laws of Man's Nature and Development (1851) a book that promoted a radical form of materialistic and even atheistic naturalism. It was essentially an extreme and uncompromising version of George COMBE's philosophy as seen in his Constitution of man (1828) with whom Atkinson also corresponded. Atkinson wrote the majority of the letters and it was by far his most influential work. The book had a great impact especially amongst MARTINEAU's Unitarian circle as the book boldly proclaimed the inadequacy of the Unitarian compromises with orthodox Christianity. Instead radical views of the purity and rectitude of natural laws were proclaimed. In this light many social conventions, such as marriage, which contravened nature's law caused only misery and should therefore be abolished.


Letters on the Laws of Man's Nature and Development (1851).

National Reformer

Further Reading

Boase, Frederic, ed., Modern English Biography, 6 vols (1965).

Cooter, R., Phrenology in the British Isles: An Annotated, Historical Bibliography and Index (1989).

Robertson, J.M., A History of Freethought in the Nineteenth Century (1929).

Wyhe, John van, Phrenology and the origins of Victorian scientific naturalism (2004).

Winter, Alison, Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain (1998).

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