Historical Perspectives On Contemporary Issues
Race & Popular Science in Early America
Join Dr. Rachel Walker as she recounts how reading a curious passage in the Anglo-African Magazine, which she found in the archives of the Library Company of Philadelphia, led to her research on race and science in early America, and more specifically, the nineteenth-century sciences of phrenology and physiognomy.
Professor Walker uses images from the archives of member institutions such as the Library Company of Philadelphia and The Huntington Library to illustrate how phrenology and physiognomy were used by both scientists and laypeople in the nineteenth century. Although we often rightly associate these techniques with pseudo-scientific ways of supporting racist and sexist social hierarchies, Dr. Walker shows us how Black scientists and laypeople also used these sciences to forward their own assertions of Black excellence and genius.
Dr. Walker shows us how scientists and the many Americans who read and talked about phrenology and physiognomy used facial angles, head shapes, and other measurements of the face and skull to make judgments and predictions about friends, family members, strangers, business partners, and ultimately, entire groups of people. She emphasizes the need to understand these practices—even though we now reject them as pseudo-sciences—because they tell us a lot about how nineteenth-century individuals understood their social world and the people with whom they interacted on a daily basis.
Questions or comments about this event or others like it? Let us know.
To cite this content, please use footnote:
"Race & Popular Science in Early America," Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine, August 17, 2021, https: www.chstm.org/video/124.
Insights from the Collections
The Consortium's collections provide many opportunities to learn more about the history of phrenology, physiognomy, and race and science in the nineteenth century.
Our cross-instiutional search tool allows researchers to investigate materials across multiple institutions from a single interface. With more than 4.4 million catalog records of rare books and manuscripts, the Consortium's search hub offers scholars and the public the ability to identify and locate relevant materials.
Search the Consortium search hub.
Some archival materials related to this topic include:
George Combe Papers, American Philosophical Society
Samuel George Morton Papers, American Philosophical Society
John Alden Mason Papers, American Philosophical Society
Phrenology, or The doctrine of the mental phenomena, by J.G. Spurtzheim, New York Academy of Medicine
Fowler's practical phrenology: giving a concise, elementary view of phrenology, by O.S. Fowler, College of Physicians of Philadelphia
Physiognomy and craniology; or, A manual of phrenology, by J.D.L. Zender, Library Company of Philadelphia
Phrenology vindicated, and antiphrenology unmasked, by Charles Caldwell, Library Company of Philadelphia
The science of physiognomy, theoretical and practical, by John Spon, Wellcome Collection
The pocket Lavater, or The science of physiognomy, by Johann Caspar Lavater, Johns Hopkins University
How to read faces; or, Practical physiognomy made easy, by James Coates, Yale University
Related publications from our presenter:
Walker, Rachel. "Facing Race: Popular Science and Black Intellectual Thought in Antebellum America, by Rachel Walker," Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 19:3 (Summer 2021), pp. 601-40.
See also recent work from our fellows: