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 practiceseven though we now reject them as pseudo-sciencesbecause 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. 

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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.



Rachel Walker Assistant Professor of History, University of Hartford

Rachel Walker specializes in the history of gender, race, and popular science in early America. She is currently working on her first book project, which uncovers the history of physiognomy: a once-popular but now-discredited science, rooted in the idea that people's facial beauty reveals their moral and mental character. In 2018, Dr. Walker received her PhD from the University of Maryland in College Park. 

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:

Dorin Smith, Fictional Brains: Reflecting on the Neural Subject in the Nineteenth-Century American Novel 

David Korostyshevsky, Disciplining the Drunkard: The Medico-Legal History of Habitual Drunkenness in Nineteenth-Century America

Kathrinne Duffy, Doctrine of the Skull: Phrenology and Public Culture in Antebellum America 

Timothy Minella, By Their Locks You Shall Know Them: Race, Science, and Hair in the Nineteenth Century