Losing One's Head to Cranioklepty

Presented by Colin Dickey, Comparative Literature PhD candidate at USC

Talk followed by wine and cheese reception and a viewing of select rare books from the Norris Medical Library’s collection.

Monday, February 7 at 4pm
West Conference Room, Norris Medical Library

In the 19th century, the popular “New Science” of phrenology had a lot of famous geniuses lose their heads…quite literally. The skulls of Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Goya and others were stolen from their graves with the intention to discover how bumps on the skull point to signs of genius.

Author and USC Comparative Literature PhD candidate Colin Dickey will be speaking about his book, Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius, immediately followed by a display of USC Norris Medical Library’s rare historical works on phrenology and anatomy. Norris Librarian Megan Curran recently spoke with Colin about this fascinating work.

How did you first stumble upon this topic? What kind of journey did your research lead you on?
I first came across the topic from this German writer W.G. Sebald who has a book called The Rings of Saturn which follows his journey through East Anglia and Norwich and he mentions Thomas Browne’s skull, and I always thought that was just a weird, one-off, freak instance. But then I was reading a totally random book by Carlos Fuentes called Buried Mirror which, totally in passing, mentioned Goya’s skull being stolen. That was the first time I thought there might be more than one, and as I started to delve into it these stories started popping up. So it really was accidentally stumbling upon these two stories and starting to find threads through them.

Why was the skull the focus of the obsessions that drove these people into graveyards in the middle of the night? What do you think it was about the skull as opposed to other things that people might have owned or other body parts that held special significance?
I think that that whole legacy of bones goes back extremely far and I think especially in Western Europe and in America there’s the Christian legacy of saints’ relics that plays into this weird form. The skull seems to be the best form, universally the best remnant of someone’s character, someone’s personality, soul, however you want to phrase it. Hegel has a great description in the midst of his Phenomenology of the Spirit arguing that the brain and the spine are the seat of one’s intelligence yet we don’t think of the spine as being the seat of one’s soul so it sort of falls to the brain and the skull. One of the things that I tried to trace in the book was all of these attitudes towards the skull that all intersect at these bizarre instances of theft.

How do you think the social mores around dead human bodies have changed from the time period of the book to the present?
The time of the book is really fascinating because attitudes towards the body were changing so dramatically, particularly around the field of anatomy, because you had this sudden recognition that in order to make advances in the field of anatomy, anatomists really needed human cadavers to work with and yet there were so many taboos and restrictions against the use of bodies in medical schools and out of necessity created this strange underworld of resurrectionists and corpse-stealers. At the time there was this really strange fluctuation about how people treated the body and it was really undergoing change whereas that particular taboo has disappeared by and large in most communities and so we’re a lot less fraught about using human remains for medical purposes and organ donation and things of that nature.

How was phrenology ultimately disgraced as a profession? Can you think of other similar medical specialities or things in science that were so popular only to be discredited not that long after the pinnacle of their popularity?
There were people who were opposed to it pretty much as soon as it was invented; it was always suspect, rightly so. For me the interesting question is why it persisted as long as it did, even though it only persisted for fifty years seriously and then another fifty years with the stragglers, and the way that phrenology became a cure-all, self-help project. But I think there are so many immediate parallels, the one that comes to mind most immediately is the case with autism and vaccinations, and the way in which that discourse, which has been resoundingly disproven in scientific circles, still continues to have a real grip on a large portion of the population. I think you can find a lot of parallels between that narrative and what was happening with phrenology and the way that people continued to believe in something that was so patently false on its face.

Were there any lasting positive effects on medicine that came out of phrenology?
The interesting thing about Franz Joseph Gall who invented phrenology was that he was the first person who figured out that different parts of the brain do different things, which is called localization of the brain, which is something that has persisted and has become part of modern science. The way that he figured this out was of course totally ludicrous, that he saw people who were good at memorizing things and had big eyes and assumed there was a direct correlation there, but however specious his methods he hit on something. To this day, I think most scientists have to begrudgingly concede to phrenology as being the first science to suggest that.

What do you think the search for genius via phrenology has to say about the nature of celebrity in the budding modern age as it developed at this time?
I’ve always been fascinated with the question of genius and what separates the so-called genius from everybody else. At this time, one of the reasons Gall was so obsessed with geniuses was because they were considered almost a separate species in the way that the insane were considered almost a separate brand of humanity. As much as we can scientifically disprove that nowadays, it still becomes a popular mythology and something that we cling to about those who walk amongst us who are somehow different or elevated.

For more information on the February 7 event, contact Megan Curran.

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