“Few Heads with Knowledge so Inform’d” – Robert Burns and Phrenology

In the latest edition of our membership magazine “voice”, our Digital Heritage Officer Kirsty Earley discusses Scotland’s National Poet and the history of the brain. You can read this below. College Members can read the full edition of “voice” by logging into their online dashboard account.

“Few Heads with Knowledge so Inform’d” – Robert Burns and Phrenology

In the latest edition of our membership magazine “voice”, our Digital Heritage Officer Kirsty Earley discusses Scotland’s National Poet and the history of the brain. You can read this below. College Members can read the full edition of “voice” by logging into their online dashboard account.

Burns Night. The evening of the year where the life of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, is celebrated with a haggis and whisky in hand. Here at the College, Rabbie has been celebrated since the opening of the 2019-2020 exhibition in September.

“Great Minds: the brain in medicine, surgery and psychiatry” gives insight into how the brain has been understood by different professionals over the years. The brain is the most complex machine in the universe and many have spent lifetimes trying to decode it.

So, where does Robert Burns fit into this exhibition?

Looking into medical history reveals the evolution of a profession over time, highlighting milestones of discovery and invention. This evolution has involved the proposal of new ideas and either the establishment of their proof or the debunking of their myth. Supporters may be passionate, but they may also be blind to fact.

Phrenology was one such idea that ignited a fire in some individuals of the medical profession in the early 1800s, although it had little scientific evidence for a foundation. This “science” claimed to determine the mental traits of an individual by measuring different areas of the skull. Traits were located in different brain areas with their size being relative to their strength. For example, if someone had a good memory, that area of the brain would be larger and would thus produce a larger bump on the skull.

The pioneer of phrenology in Scotland was George Combe, a lawyer from Edinburgh. Despite not being a scientist or medical man himself, Combe established the Edinburgh Phrenological Society in 1820, after being inspired by one of the pioneers of phrenology, Johann Gaspar Spurzheim. Combe, as with many other supporters of phrenology, faced much opposition and would go to great lengths to scientifically justify his art.

This is where Burns enters the story

To prove the science behind phrenology, members of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society would take face masks of famous individuals. These masks would then be used to measure the shapes of the skull and link them to the individual’s mental traits, thus proving phrenology as a science. Masks were made of Combe himself, Burke and Hare, and even John James Audubon, to name a few. Phrenologists were always interested in those who were in the public eye.

When the opportunity came to take a cast of the skull of Robert Burns, phrenologists jumped at the chance. It was no easy feat – Burns had died in 1796 and his widow was not keen on phrenologists exhuming his body. It wasn’t until the death of his widow, Jean Armour, in 1834 that phrenologists were able to exhume Burns’ skull, produce a plaster cast of it, and send it to Edinburgh for Combe’s examination. This was a tremendous coup for the phrenologists. The Dumfries surgeon who supervised out the exhumation, Archibald Blacklock, stated that this had “been so long desiderated by Phrenologists – a correct model of our immortal poet’s head.”

Several replicas were made of Burns’ skull cast and are held in museum institutions across Scotland. Through the generosity of the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow, the College was able to obtain a replica cast of the Bard’s skull on loan for inclusion in the current exhibition. This cast is usually held in the University’s Museum of Anatomy as part of the collection of John Cleland.

As part of the College’s commitment to improving access to its heritage through digitisation, we produced a 3D digital model of the skull. The technique of photogrammetry has been practiced in the College’s heritage department for the past few years, allowing us to provide enhanced access to hundreds of museum collection objects. The digital 3D model allows visitors to investigate different aspects of the skull that aren’t clearly visible through the display case.

Phrenology rose and fell in popularity during the 1800s and was eventually debunked and relegated to the status of pseudoscience. However, phrenology did pave the way for investigation into cerebral localisation, the idea that the brain can be mapped into different functional areas. This mapping technique enabled William Macewen to be the first person to successfully remove a brain tumour in 1879 in Glasgow. Macewen’s operation is the central inspiration for our exhibition.

You can see the cast of the skull of Robert Burns in the exhibition “Great Minds: the brain in medicine, surgery and psychiatry” until July 2020. You can also view the digital 3D model on our Heritage website.


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