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Latest addition to the collection and the "science" behind it

I feel that, if you are a collector of all things Sherlock Holmes (or of Victoriana in general), there are some things that you should have. I generally confine my collecting to printed material but there are a few objects that I simply had to have.

The latest I have acquired is a Phrenology head. The "science" of Phrenology (really a pseudo-science) was popular in the early to mid nineteenth century and worked on the idea that areas of the brain had a direct impact on aspects of the individual and that the form of the skull could indicate certain traits. This is not entirely wrong as areas of the brain are now known to directly control motor abilities, emotions etc. but the map used by adherents of Phrenology was distinctly wide of the mark and the "science" was dangerously close, in its attitudes, to eugenics.

Now, by the late 1840s, Phrenology was slowly falling out of favour. Arthur Conan Doyle, arguably, touched on the idea in The Hound of the Baskervilles in this excerpt where Dr Mortimer addresses Holmes.

"You interest me very much, Mr. Holmes. I had hardly expected so dolichocephalic a skull or such well-marked supra-orbital development. Would you have any objection to my running my finger along your parietal fissure? A cast of your skull, sir, until the original is available, would be an ornament to any anthropological museum. It is not my intention to be fulsome, but I confess that I covet your skull."
Now this does not explicitly reference Phrenology and you could argue that there is no hint of it at all. However the makers of Granada's film of HOUN, with Jeremy Brett, clearly thought otherwise with Brett's Holmes stating to Mortimer:

"Well, I presume it was not your phrenological passion which drew you to Baker Street."
If you wish to read more about Phrenology the Wikipedia article can be found here.



Written by Alistair Duncan Buy my books here

2 comments:

  1. The first season of "Elementary" introduced Jonny Lee Miller's phrenology bust "Angus". Back in the London days of Miller's Sherlock, as he had no Watson as a sounding board, he used Angus. In a later show Liu's Watson used Angus to cold cock an intruder. Miller is seen at the end of the episode gluing him back together. It is interesting how much of Holmes and Watson's ideas of one's innate character can be traced to Louis Agassiz, Samuel Morton. Paul Broca, Cesare Lombroso and others of the 18th century who believed, like Watson, that: "But one could not look upon his cruel blue eyes, with their drooping, cynical lids, or upon the fierce, aggressive nose and the threatening, deep-lined brow, without reading Nature's plainest danger-signals." Or Holmes: "There are some trees, Watson, which grow to a certain height and then suddenly develop some unsightly eccentricity. You will see it often in humans. I have a theory that the individual represents in his development the whole procession of his ancestors, and that such a sudden turn to good or evil stands for some strong influence which came into the line of his pedigree. The person becomes, as it were, the epitome of the history of his own family." [Both EMPT] Makes you wonder what enlightened ideas based on science we hold today that in a hundred years hence will be considered nonsense.

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