Beauty and the Brain: The Science of Human Nature in Early America

Rachel E. Walker

Library Company of Philadelphia

Thursday, September 21, 2023 7:00 pm EDT

Online Event, Register Here.

Between the 1770s and the 1860s, people all across the globe relied on physiognomy and phrenology to evaluate human worth. These once-popular but now discredited disciplines were based on a deceptively simple premise: that facial features or skull shape could reveal a person’s intelligence, character, and personality. In the United States, these were culturally ubiquitous sciences that both elite thinkers and ordinary people used to understand human nature.
While the modern world dismisses phrenology and physiognomy as silly and debunked disciplines, Beauty and the Brain shows why they must be taken seriously: they were the intellectual tools that a diverse group of Americans used to debate questions of race, gender, and social justice. While prominent intellectuals and political thinkers invoked these sciences to justify hierarchy, marginalized people and progressive activists deployed them for their own political aims, creatively interpreting human minds and bodies as they fought for racial justice and gender equality. Ultimately, though, physiognomy and phrenology were as dangerous as they were popular. In addition to validating the idea that external beauty was a sign of internal worth, these disciplines often appealed to the very people who were damaged by their prejudicial doctrines. In taking physiognomy and phrenology seriously, Beauty and the Brain recovers a vibrant—if largely forgotten—cultural and intellectual universe, showing how popular sciences shaped some of the greatest political debates of the American past.
Rachel E. Walker is an Assistant Professor of History in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Hartford. In 2018, she earned her PhD from the University of Maryland in College Park. As both a scholar and a teacher, Dr. Walker specializes in the history of gender, race, and popular science in early America. Dr. Walker’s research has garnered long-term fellowships from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, and the Library Company of Philadelphia. Since joining the faculty at the University of Hartford, Dr. Walker has been awarded a Richard J. Cardin Research Grant from the College of Arts and Sciences, a Davis Fellowship to enhance student writing, and a Critical Thinking “Micro-Skills” Grant to facilitate critical inquiry in the classroom. By offering courses in U.S. History, Women’s History, and the History of Sexuality, Dr. Walker regularly encourages students to examine structures of power, privilege, and inequality in the American past. 
Closed captioning will be provided.