George Combe - Encyclopedia

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GEORGE COMBE (1788-1858), Scottish phrenologist, elder brother of the above, was born in Edinburgh on the 21st of October 1788. After attending Edinburgh high school and university he entered a lawyer's office in 1804, and in 1812 began to practise on his own account. In 1815 the Edinburgh Review contained an article on the system of "craniology" of F. J. Gall and K. Spurzheim, which was 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 Spurzheim delivered lectures in Edinburgh, in refutation of the statements of his critic, Combe considered the subject unworthy 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. Investigating the subject for himself, he became satisfied 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, caeteris paribus, an index of power or energy of function." In 1817 his first essay on phrenology was published in the Scots Magazine; and a series of papers on the same subject appeared soon afterwards in the Literary and Statistical Magazine; these were collected and published in 1819 in book form as Essays on Phrenology, which in later editions became A System of Phrenology. In 1820 he helped to found the Phrenological Society, which in 1823 began to publish a Phrenological Journal. By his lectures and writings he attracted public attention to the subject on the continent of Europe and in America, as well as at home; and a long discussion with Sir William Hamilton in 1827-1828 excited general interest.

His most popular work, The Constitution of Man, was published in 1828, and in some quarters brought upon him denunciations as a materialist and atheist. From that time he saw everything by the light of phrenology. He gave time, labour and money to help forward the education of the poorer classes; he established the first infant school in Edinburgh; and he originated a series of evening lectures on chemistry, physiology, history and moral philosophy. 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 at Edinburgh, but was rejected in favour of Sir William Hamilton. In 1838 he visited America and spent about two years lecturing on phrenology, education and the treatment of the criminal classes. On his return in 1840 he published his Moral Philosophy, aid 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 on phrenology in the university of Heidelberg, and he travelled much in Europe, inquiring into the management of schools, prisons and asylums. The commercial crisis of 1855 elicited his remarkable pamphlet on The Currency Question (1858). 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. He was engaged in revising the ninth edition of the Constitution of Man when he died at Moor Park, Farnham, on the 14th of August 1858. He married in 1833 Cecilia Siddons, a daughter of the great actress.

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