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 (photograph), 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, Thomas Malthus, Thomas 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
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 nineteenth 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 nineteenth century.
Further reading and related material on the author's British Museum site
Combe, G., A System of Phrenology, 2 vols., 5th edn, 1853.
Combe, G., The Life and Correspondence of Andrew Combe M.D. 1850.
Combe, G., The Constitution of Man considered in relation to external objects. 1847.
Combe, G., Science and religion. 1893 (First published 1857).
Gibbon, The Life of George Combe: Author of "The Constitution of Man." 2 vols. 1878. Volume 1 & volume 2.
The History of Phrenology on the Web, by John van Wyhe.
Created modified 2000
Last modified 6 January 2017