by John van Wyhe
Combe, an Edinburgh lawyer, was among the first converts to phrenology. He was instrumental in shaping the science, co-founding the Edinburgh Phrenological Society in 1820. In the 1830s he devoted himself wholly to the promulgation of phrenology. Combe was an ambitious man and travelled extensively through Britain, Germany, and the United States on phrenological tours. Over time he devoted himself ever more to his efforts to promote a philosophy of natural laws and a secular society. His most famous work, The Constitution of Man became one of the best-selling books of the 19th century and helped to spread his version of naturalism far and wide. It is likely that Combe's impact on the 19th century was as powerful as Charles Darwin's.
George Combe (1788-1858) was the most prolific British phrenologist
of the nineteenth century. Combe came from the large family (thirteen children
surviving in 1807) of an Edinburgh brewer. In their crowded home which the
Combes shared with servants at the base of Edinburgh castle George never felt
he received the attention he deserved as a child, though he derived his keenest
pleasure from those brief moments when the eyes of the family turned on him
while he amused them. His parents insisted on a rote religious education more
out of a sense of propriety than of religious fervour. At school also Combe
endured a harsh force-feeding educational regime, and occasionally the taws.
Roger Cooter argued convincingly for the profound effects of Combe's upbringing
for his stifled emotions, stolidness, sternness, and the importance of observing
hierarchies, order and routine. Cooter also argued that phrenology filled
a gap left by rejecting Calvinism although it is unclear that Combe was ever
devout enough to experience a gap later.
Combe attended classes at Edinburgh university from 1802-4. Afterwards he was apprenticed as a clerk to Writers to the Signet (lawyers). George's other brothers became brewers, tanners, a sailor, and a baker. Only his younger brother Andrew followed George in a more ambitious career; Andrew became a physician. With increased social status and secure and promising employment, Combe began to think of the education and learning appropriate for a gentleman. He began to read current literature such as the Edinburgh Review and authors such as Adam Smith, Malthus, Reid, Dugald Stewart, William Cobbett and to keep a diary.
The praise of others evoked Combe's highest enjoyment as he related in an autobiographical fragment referring to his 1804 private elocution classes to overcome his "vulgar" pronunciation:
These words [of vindication from the instructor] produced a thrill of pleasure through my whole frame, for I had so strong a desire for praise for praiseworthy qualities, and had so very rarely enjoyed the gratification of it, that this commendation...wakened me to a higher sense of my own capabilities; or rather gave sanction to emotions of ambition for a higher sphere of intellectual life, of which I was conscious, although I feared that they originated in conceit, and not in capacity.
Phrenology would later provide Combe with the certainty of that capacity:
When yet a child I was animated by the strongest ambition to do some great and good service to my fellowmen, which should render me an object of their love and respect. I conjured up schemes in my imagination for the gratification of the desire until I wept in contemplating them....I owe to Phrenology, presented to me by mere accident, a field in which it has been possible for me to pursue this object...
In 1810 Combe joined a small weekly debating society, the Forum,
where young men discussed issues of the day such as the death penalty or the
comparative advantages and disadvantages of matrimony versus celibacy (matrimony
was voted preferable), or "Whether novel-reading is favourable or prejudicial
to morality?" Combe valued taking a stand on current issues at social
gatherings and displaying knowledge of "general topics, or in writing".
Combe became known as one who liked to do all the talking and to pronounce
his opinions on all subjects. Later in life the famous American abolitionist
Frederick Douglass observed after a social breakfast with Combe: "I was
a listener. Mr. Combe did the most of the talking, and did it so well that
nobody felt like interposing a word, except so far as to draw him on. ...His
manner was remarkably quiet, and he spoke as not expecting opposition to his
views. Phrenology explained everything to him, from the finite to the infinite."
Many who knew Combe remarked that once he set into opinions he was not easily shifted out of them and that he had little time for the opinions of others. Francis Jeffrey later guessed as much when he offered an explanation for Combe's devotion to phrenology: "Mr Combe's sense and energy having been led, by some extraordinary accident, first to conceive a partiality for [phrenology]-and then induced, with the natural ambition of a man of talent, to make it a point of honour to justify his partiality". These characteristics were important for Combe to defiantly, and unquestioningly, espouse phrenology until his death in 1858. The irascible botanist and phrenologist Hewett C. Watson (with whom Combe eventually had a falling out) "said truly that I [Combe] was a good teacher but a bad learner". Clearly Combe turned what others saw as close-minded obstinance into an emphasis on his qualities as a tireless propounder of natural truths. Combe's nephew Sir James Cox later recalled that Combe had a "strong desire for posthumous fame".
In short, Combe was something of an opinionated egoist and exceedingly keen on acquiring as much attention for himself as possible-so long as it was respectable. As an egotistical phrenologist he was in good company. The history of phrenology could be written as the biographies of egotistical men, beginning with Gall, Spurzheim (the two indeed may have parted over a clash of egos), Combe, H.C. Watson, Charles Caldwell, and John Elliotson, for whom Cooter remarked phrenology was an "egotistically satisfying means of affronting the conventional." It should not be taken as censure to appeal to these character traits for the leading phrenologists. Instead it seems these character traits are important parts of the explanation for their behaviour. Phrenology attracted such men because of its promise of superlative intellectual authority with minimal effort.
Combe had been in practice as a Writer to the Signet for three years when John Gordon's review of J.G. Spurzheim appeared in 1815. Combe readily mocked Spurzheim's system along with so many other readers of the "literary gospel of Edinburgh". The chance meeting with Spurzheim changed this and Combe's life. Combe attended Spurzheim's next course of Edinburgh lectures and later ordered plaster casts from London to study the science further, to "ascert[ain] whether nature supported [Gall & Spurzheim] or not." Along with the casts came the interest of his friends and colleagues. For the first time in his life, Combe received attention from others, and on a subject about which he could speak with authority as there were no other phrenologists in Britain apart from Spurzheim and Forster in 1816-17.
Within two months of Spurzheim's departure from Edinburgh, Combe published for the first time-on phrenology. Later in the same year Combe visited Spurzheim in Paris (his first departure from Scotland) and sent his younger brother Andrew to study medicine there. Spurzheim's phrenology was a rationalist religion which the Combe brothers could join. The Combe brothers became firm phrenologists, though George was always uncompromisingly outspoken and zealous in his advocacy whereas Andrew was "far less fanatical and importunate in his advocacy" as the actress Fanny Kemble recalled. In Edinburgh the Combes met others who had been converted by Spurzheim's refutation of Gordon, such as the scientific dilettante Sir George Steuart Mackenzie (1780-1848) and the young evangelical minister David Welsh (1793-1845).
At the suggestion of Welsh, the Combes and some legal colleagues of George, founded the Edinburgh Phrenological Society (EPS) in February 1820. It was the first phrenological body ever created. It was comprised mostly of young middle-class professionals eager to join a scientific society, many of whom had been converted by Spurzheim personally. The EPS grew quickly. By 1826 there were 120 members. Combe purchased a hall for the group's meetings and their growing museum of casts and skulls.
In the 1830s and 1840s Combe used phrenology to espouse a rational and secular reform of education and society. In the 1830s he devoted himself wholly to the promulgation of phrenology. Combe was an ambitious man and travelled extensively through Britain, Germany, and the United States on phrenological tours. Over time he devoted himself ever more to his efforts to promote a philosophy of natural laws and a secular society. His most famous work, The Constitution of Man became one of the best-selling books of the 19th century and helped to spread his version of naturalism far and wide. It is likely that Combe's impact on the 19th century was as powerful as Charles Darwin's.
Constitution sold approximately 350,000 copies between 1828 and 1900, an astounding number at the time and scarcely matched by any other book regardless of genre. In contrast, Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) sold only 50,000 between 1859 and 1900 (in the UK). Over 100 publishers produced Constitution continuously until 1899. Constitution's remarkable sales and the even larger number of people who read or were familiar with its philosophy of natural law, the amount of critical attention it received, and its influence make Constitution, and the phrenological naturalism it catered, anything but peripheral to the history of nineteenth-century Britain. Few book's were more widely distributed or were so influential in changing the way people conceived of themselves and Nature.
The book's fame did carry a word for phrenology with it; but Constitution is not a book about phrenology, instead it is a book of natural philosophy which teaches that Man is as subject to natural laws as the rest of Nature- Physical, Organic, and Moral. Ignorance of or disobedience to the natural laws led to "punishment"- such as catching a cold from exposure to the elements. The first steps towards the good life were to study and obey the distinct natural laws (notably excluding the Bible). Combe's book was hugely controversial from the 1820s through the 1850s. Evangelicals founded societies to oppose it, wrote books and articles against it, and sometimes even burned it! Thus fuss popularly believed to have resulted from Darwin's Origin of Species pales in comparison to that of Combe's Constitution, one of the most influential books of the 19th century.
Combe in 1836 & 1857,
Combe ca. 1846.
This wonderful hand-tinted daguerreotype is courtesy of the M & M Cuarterolo collection, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Andrew Combe was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1797 and died on 9 August 1847 in Edinburgh. Andrew Combe is often remembered as the younger brother of the more famous phrenologist and philosopher George COMBE. Andrew also became a leading phrenologist and co-founded the Edinburgh Phrenological Society in 1820, was elected its president in 1827 and acted for many years as co-proprietor and co-editor of the Phrenological Journal. Professionally he became a physician after he studied medicine in Edinburgh and Paris in 1817 where he also attended the lectures of the French zoologist, botanist and evolutionist Jean-Baptist Lamarck. Combe was profoundly influenced by his brother George's philosophy of the doctrine of natural laws which was most prominently advocated in the latter's The Constitution of man (1828). Andrew Combe, however, was 'far less fanatical and importunate in his advocacy' of phrenology as the actress Fanny Kemble recalled. Combe's subtle mixture of rational medical reform and the importance of to attending to the natural laws of health which pervaded his published works earned him much respect. His first publications were articles on phrenology. He first book, Observations on Mental Derangement; Being an Explanation of the Principles of Phrenology to the Elucidation of the Causes, Symptoms, Nature and Treatment of Insanity (1831) was reprinted until the 1880s. In 1832 he was elected to the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. In 1834 he published Principles of Physiology Applied to the Preservation of Health, and to the Improvement of Physical and Mental Education a work which stressed the need for individuals to attend to the natural laws of health. The book was very well received and went through thirteen editions by 1847. Partly on the strength of this work his acquaintance Dr James (later Sir James) Clark recommended him for the position of personal physician to King Leopold I of the Belgians in 1836. Also in 1836 Combe published his Physiology of Digestion considered in Relation to the Principles of Dietetics a seminal work on its subject and continuing the earlier themes of physiology as a realm of natural laws of cause and effect. His final work was A Treatise on the Physiological and Moral Management of Infancy: Being a Practical Exposition of the Principles of Infant Training, For the Use of Parents (1840). According to Combe the greatest influences on his life and thought were first his brother George, Johann Gaspar Spurzheim and phrenology. Combe was emotionally reserved and never married. Suffering from a life-long sickly constitution, Combe died of consumption in 1847 shortly after returning from a journey to America.
Observations on Mental Derangement; Being an Explanation of the Principles of Phrenology to the Elucidation of the Causes, Symptoms, Nature and Treatment of Insanity (1831).
Principles of Physiology Applied to the Preservation of Health, and to the Improvement of Physical and Mental Education (1834).
Physiology of Digestion considered in Relation to the Principles of Dietetics (1836).
Combe, G., The constitution of man (1828).
Combe, G., The Life and Correspondence of Andrew Combe M.D. 1850.
Cooter, R., Phrenology in the British Isles: An Annotated, Historical Bibliography and Index 1989.
Kemble, F., Record of a girlhood, I, (1878).
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