1902 Encyclopedia > George Combe

George Combe
Scottish writer on phrenology and education
(1788-1858)




GEORGE COMBE, (1788-1858), was born in Edinburgh, 21st October 1788. As the first advocate in this country of the phrenological doctrines of Gall and Spurzheim. and as the author of The Constitution of Man Considered in Relation to External Objects, he attracted much attention in Britain, on the Continent, and in America. His father was a brewer,—a man of shrewd business qualities, and of a benevolent disposition, and a strict observer of Calvin-istic practices; and his children—nine daughters and eight sons—were placed under a rigid system of religious in-struction. In a fragment of autobiography written by Combe shortly before his death, he complains of the irk-someness of the Sunday observances and tasks imposed on his father's household. His frame was feeble ; the Sunday tasks followed weeks of severe mental labour at school, and, so far from cultivating in him a religious spirit, they rendered the church, Sunday, and the Catechism sources of weariness and terror to him. His character was earnest and thoughtful even as a child; and feelings of despon-dency thus engendered were intensified by the weakness of his constitution. His mind became largely occupied with the current theological theories and, in time, with doubts of their truth. He attended the High School for five years, and then proceeded to the university. In 1804 he entered a lawyer's office as an apprentice, and applied him-self diligently to the acquirement of the details of his pro-fession. At the same time he assisted his younger brothers and sisters in their studies, and read philosophy, history, and general literature ; philosophical works, however, had most attraction for him. In 1812 he obtained his com-mission as writer to the signet, and, soon after, that of notary public. His shrewdness and conscientiousness in dealing with clients speedily obtained for him a degree of practice which exceeded his expectations. Meanwhile, in private, he had vague yearnings to accomplish something which might benefit mankind. In 1815 the Edinburgh Review contained an article on Gall and Spurzheim's system of " craniology," which the reviewer denounced as " a piece of thorough quackery from beginning to end." Combe laughed like others at the absurdities of this so-called new theory of the brain, and thought that it must be finally exploded after such an exposure ; and when Dr Spurzheim delivered lectures in Edinburgh, in refutation of the state-ments of his critic, Combe considered the subject un-worthy of serious attention. He was, however, invited to a friend's house where he saw Spurzheim dissect the brain, and he was so far impressed by the demonstration that he attended the second course of lectures. Proceeding to investigate the subject for himself, he became satisfied, after two years of study and observation, that the fundamental principles of phrenology were true—namely " that the brain is the organ of mind ; that the brain is an aggregate of several parts, each subserving a distinct mental faculty; and that the size of the cerebral organ is, cceteris paribus, an index of power or energy of function." He had moved slowly at first; he now pursued his investigations with en-thusiasm. He compared the known characteristics of friends with their phrenological developments; he studied anatomy; he visited schools, prisons,1 and large manufac-tories ; and he became more and more satisfied that be was approaching a truth which would be of great value to humanity. He requested his brother Dr Andrew Combe— who was at that time a medical student in Paris—to give particular attention to the dissection of the brain, in order to be prepared to support or to condemn the new theories on anatomical principles. In 1817 his first essay on phren-ology was published in the Scots Magazine ; and a series of papers on. the sami subject appeared soon afterwards in the Literary and Statistical Magazine ; these were collected and published in 1819 in book form as Essays on Phrenology. His friends became alarmed by his public advocacy of a cause which was the laughing-stock of all men of reputation, and warned him that it would be the ruin of his professional prospects. He was not diverted from his course, and he had the satisfaction of finding his business increase ; for the many who laughed at his hobby or regretted it still recognized his assiduity in attending to the affairs of his clients. The Essays gave an extraordinary impetus to the new science; friends and foes became numerous; a phrenological society was founded; the Phrenological Journal was established, and was published quarterly for twenty years; a volume of Phrenological Transactions was issued; and Combe's first work developed into A System of Phrenology in two large volumes, of which five editions have been published. By his lectures and writings he attracted public attention to the subject on the Continent and in America, as well as at home; and a long discussion with Sir William Hamilton in 1827-28 excited general interest.





The publication of his most popular work, The Constitu-tion of Man, was determined upon after serious deliberation. He had circulated private copies amongst his friends, several of whom regarded the principles of the essay as dangerous to society and urged him to suppress it. The principle on which he based his argument was that all the laws of nature were in harmony with each other, and that man would best fulfil God's will, and attain the greatest happiness for himself, by discovering those laws and obeying them. He saw nothing irreligious in this principle ; he believed that on the contrary it supplied a philosophic basis to religion. When the book was published in 1828, he was charged by the church party with being a materialist and an atheist ; but, on the other hand, he received from near and distant quarters grateful thanks for the new light his work had shed upon religion, and for the satisfaction it afforded to doubting minds. As one indication of the estimation which the work obtained, it is notable that amongst many editions in America there was one for the blind. From this date the current of Combe's public life broadened ; he became strong in his own con-victions of the truth, and consequently more resolute in carrying them to practical issues. He might hesitate at first, doubting himself; but once satisfied that he was right, he never faltered. He saw everything by the light of phrenology, and the light rendered him patient of the opposition of others, and guided him to the most earnest efforts to benefit his fellow-creatures, morally and socially. He gave time, labour, and money to help forward the education of the poorer classes ; he established the first infant school in Edinburgh under the direction of Mr Wilderspin ; and he originated a series of evening lectures on chemistry, physiology, history, and moral philosophy— the lectures on the latter subject being delivered by himself. He studied the criminal classes, and tried to solve the problem how to reform as well as to punish them; and he strove to introduce into lunatic asylums a humane system of treatment. In 1836 he offered himself as a candidate for the chair of logic in the Edinburgh University, and the testimonials submitted on his behalf on that occasion show that he was held in high esteem by men of very opposite opinions. As he had expected, he was rejected by the town council in favour of Sir William Hamilton.

Having received numerous invitations to visit America, he proceeded thither in 1838, and about two years were occupied in lecturing in the principal States on phrenology, education, and the treatment of the criminal classes. On his return in 1840 he published his Moral Philosophy, and in the following year his Notes on the United States of North America. In 1842 he delivered, in German, a course of twenty-two lectures in the university of Heidelberg—being the first Englishman who had ventured to lecture there in the national language. But the effort resulted in an illness which prostrated him for some time. He continued to travel much on the Continent—inquiring into the manage- ment of schools, prisons, and asylums. The commercial crisis of 1855 elicited his remarkable pamphlet on The Currency Question. The culmination of the religious thought and experience of his life is contained in his work On the Relation between Science and Religion, first publicly issued in 1857, and now in its fifth edition. Writing pamphlets, contributing to periodicals, lecturing, and correcting the new editions of his works rendered Ms days busy to the last. He was engaged in revising the ninth edition of the Constitution of Man when he died at Moor Park. Farnham, 14th August 1858. He had married in 1833 Cecilia Sid- dons, a daughter of the great actress. She had been the companion of all his travels, and she was with him at the end. Apart from his position as a phrenologist he earned distinction by his efforts on behalf of education, and by his courage in promulgating certain philosophic truths, which at the time were regarded as subversive of every- thing good, but are now accepted so entirely as matters of course that his share in obtaining recognition for them is apt to be forgotten. (c. G.)







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