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Darwin Correspondence Project

4.40 'Phrenological Magazine'

Among the stranger uses of Rejlander’s photograph of Darwin (the very popular profile view) was as an illustration in Lorenzo Niles Fowler’s Phrenological Magazine of 1880; it accompanied an article titled ‘Charles Darwin A Phrenological Portrait’. Fowler was a famous American-born phrenologist, who had arrived in Britain in 1860; he toured the country giving highly successful public lectures to large audiences, and he also published many tracts on the subject. Roger Cooter suggests that through Fowler the pseudoscience of phrenology was given a new lease of life, and indeed ‘became in many ways more deeply entrenched than ever in everyday thought and expression’, involving both the middle and lower classes in the second half of the nineteenth century.   

In many physiognomic or phrenological analyses of the features of famous men, it seems that their characters or reputations determined the reading of their features, rather than vice versa. For example, in Arthur Cheetham’s Phrenology in a Nutshell (1893), the face of Lord Shaftesbury typifies ‘Kindness’, and that of Tennyson ‘Sublimity’. However, in the present case, Fowler produced a characterisation of Darwin supposedly based on the form of his head, which is at variance with his best-known traits. He credits Darwin with great ‘physical powers . . . so much bone, muscle, and nerve power, that he is disposed to use up his vital power as fast as he generates it’. ‘He is prompt and off-hand, and acts on the spur of the moment.’ The ‘mountain of Firmness’ over his ears makes him ‘very tenacious, determined, and persevering’, but it also indicates a degree of ‘Self-esteem’ that biases him against the ‘investigations and opinions of others’. . . ‘It will be more easy for him to acquire knowledge and gather facts than to weave a philosophy or theory out of them. He has an almost purely scientific, fact-gathering mind.’  

Darwin himself was certainly interested in – or perhaps anxious about – physiognomic and craniological theories (see the catalogue entry for a portrayal of him in Simms’s Nature’s Revelations of Character). His sons certainly subscribed to such theories, in so far as they could be associated with heredity and eugenics. However, Fowler’s ‘phrenological portrait’ would surely have been greeted with rueful or derisive mirth at Down House.  

  • physical location Cambridge University Library. Another copy is in the British Library 

  • accession or collection number PH:123-30 

  • copyright holder Syndics of Cambridge University Library 

  • originator of image Oscar Gustav Rejlander (photographic source) 

  • date of creation 1871, wood-engraved for the Phrenological Magazine in 1880 

  • computer-readable date (for the magazine illustration) c. 1880-1-1 to 1880-4-1 

  • medium and material wood engraving from a photograph 

  • references and bibliography ‘Charles Darwin. A Phrenological Portrait’, The Phrenological Magazine 1 (April 1880), pp. 89-92. Obituary of Fowler in the New York Times, 4 Sept. 1896. Roger Cooter, The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science: Phrenology and the Organization of Consent in Nineteenth-century Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 156, 258-263, 282. Jonathan Smith, Charles Darwin and Victorian Visual Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), ‘Darwin’s faces 1’, section on ‘Physiognomy and phrenology’, pp. 198-213. John van Wyhe, ‘The history of phrenology on the web: the Fowlers’, accessed March 2021.  


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