(a note on content)
Some of the stories in the exhibition feature racist, ableist, and/or homophobic medical terms which are offensive. As curators and writers of this exhibition, we have done our best to use these terms responsibly, with a view to appropriately contextualising and exploring these ideas and their history, and encouraging continuing critical thought in the interests of positive social change in the future.
While trying to address these issues squarely, we are also aware that we may ourselves use racist and ableist language naively or in error. As such, we welcome corrections and suggestions for improving the language used here, and encourage you to get in touch with us to help us learn and improve the language of the exhibition if you feel we have done so. The exhibition also features images of pathology specimens which include human organs.
Cast 34: Carl Gottlob Irmscher, UCL Science Collections (The Noel Collection of Life and Death Masks), 1840.
Francis Galton was far from the first to propose correlations between the psychology and physicality of a person. He was partly influenced by the established practices of physiognomy, or the study of how a person’s character manifests in their appearance, including phrenology. First developed in the late eighteenth century by German physician Franz Joseph Gall, phrenology entailed the measurement and examination of the size and shape of the head to determine a person’s personality and abilities. It was believed that the brain could be divided into various regions, each of which represented a mental faculty. These regions could be physically larger or smaller depending on the strength of that faculty in the person. The movement soared in popularity among the middle classes in Britain in the early nineteenth century, thanks in part by the dissemination of phrenological writings by George Combe, but was largely dismissed as pseudoscience by mid-century (Tomlinson, 1997). Despite this, the movement was influential in Galton’s approach to the working classes and criminality, with the exception of a few key differences reflective of his beliefs in inherited ability.
Phrenologists commonly used death masks to study the head structures of subjects ranging from the highly respected to the lowest of criminals (Berveling, 2020, p.6). This particular death mask is drawn from the collection of phrenologist Robert Noel, who acquired a variety of masks while traveling through Europe between 1837 and 1845 (Noel, 1883). The label hung below the plaster chin reads “Irmscher ~ N;34” and, ominously, “Murderer – decapitated 1840.” The subject was Carl Gottlob Irmscher, a German labourer who was executed for the murders of his wife and child in Saxony. Irmscher was motivated by the debts his wife had amassed before their marriage and the fact that they had three children when he had only wanted one. Issues were only exacerbated by general poverty and the fact that their second child, a son, had been unwell since birth and often required expensive medical care (Noel, 1883, p.60). On the 27th of October 1838, Irsmcher first murdered his son by submerging his head in water until he drowned. He then killed his wife with several blows to the head with a hatchet. Despite an initial attempt to feign innocence, Irmscher was arrested for the murders (Noel, 1883, p.60). He was sentenced to death and later confessed to the whole ordeal prior to his execution by sword in Dresden in 1840 (Noel,1883, p.61).
Noel was present at the Medical Chirurgical Academy in Dresden when Irmscher’s corpse was brought in. Upon seeing it, he requested that a cast be produced by noted plasterer Franz Papatschy (Noel, 1883, p.61). The cast would have been made from plaster that was poured into two molds that together formed Irmscher’s head. While the head would have been oiled to prevent sticking to the mold, remnants of Irmscher’s eyebrow hairs remain stuck to the mask (Andrews, 1988). Upon Noel’s death, his mask collection was bequeathed to his cousin, the Earl of Lovelace, whose wife later gifted it to the Galton Laboratory in 1911 (Beirne, 1993, p.219). When the Laboratory was demolished in 1968, the collection was taken in by The Slade School, where they were largely forgotten until being reunited with the Galton Collection in the 1990s (Hink, 2014). They have since come under the care of UCL Museums and Collections.
Writing in 1924, Karl Pearson stated that Galton “belonged to a generation in which…the belief in some form of phrenology [was] still appreciable” and that “he was really attempting to make a true science out of the study of physiognomy” (p.301). Galton’s quest to establish a link between appearance and character in his composite photography work in particular echoed phrenology. The two practices were also driven by similar contemporary social anxieties. Not only did nineteenth century Britain see revolutionary changes in areas inclusive of education, women’s rights and scientific discovery, but also rising fears over wider societal degeneration, particularly with regards to the working classes and the development of a depraved “criminal class.” This prompted many to apply scientific methods in attempts to identify and classify criminals, as demonstrated by phrenology and Galton’s work (Pavlich, 2009, pp.171-2).
Despite the methodological similarities, Galton did depart from phrenological principles in at least one key area. While phrenology was often applied in attempts to demonstrate the inferiority of certain groups, such as women and non-white races, it also emphasised the negative effects of poor living conditions and the ability of people of all classes to improve themselves to some extent (Tomlinson,1997). While optimistic, this viewpoint still situated the poorer classes as inferior. Noel argued that “morbid conditions” negatively affect the growth of certain parts of the brain and hinder the development of a strong character and intellect (Noel, 1873, p.38). George Combe in particular believed that education and improved conditions would result in a superior head shape (Tomlinson, 1997). With this in mind, as a violent criminal who had experienced poverty and deplorable living conditions, Irmscher was a perfect subject for Noel to study.
While phrenologists believed a person’s life conditions could shape them both physically and psychologically, Galton contrastingly believed “intellectual and moral gifts are as strictly matters of inheritance as any purely physical qualities” (1872, p.176). He wrote that “whether it be in character, disposition, energy, intellect, or physical power, we each receive at our birth a definite endowment,” demonstrating the shift from the phrenologist’s belief in everyone’s ability to improve (1909, p.3). Heavily influenced by Darwin, Galton was convinced that the working class had essentially evolved separately from the more respectable middle and upper classes (Pavlich, 2009, p.174). Therefore, while phrenology lent certain principles, Galton’s work departed from them in his beliefs in inherited degeneration within the working classes.
Despite their differences, both phrenology and Galton’s work were part of a wider movement which served to justify the belief in the superiority of the middle and upper classes and succeeded in further othering the working class. This aided in cementing prejudices against the working class still seen today.
By Emma McKean
Andrews, Oliver. 1988. Living Materials - A Sculptor's Handbook. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Beirne, Piers. 1993. Inventing Criminology: Essays on the Rise of ‘Homo Criminalis. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Berveling, Jaco. 2020. "My God, here is the skull of a murderer!”: Physical appearance and violent crime. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 30 (2): 1–14. DOI: 10.1080/0964704X.2020.1789937
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Galton, Francis. 1872. On Blood Relationship. Nature 6 (June): 173-176.
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Hink, Christina. 2014. Interview with Alan Taylor [In person]. 7 March. University College London [Unpublished].
Noel, Robert. 1873. The Physical Basis of Mental Life: A Popular Essay. London: Longmans, Green and Co.
Noel, Robert. 1883. Notes Biographical and Phrenological Illustrating a Collection of Casts. London.
Pavlich, George. 2009. The Subjects of Criminal Identification. Punishment & Society 11(2): 171–190. DOI: 10.1177/1462474508101491.
Pearson, Karl. 1924. The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton Vol. 2: Researches of Middle Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Tomlinson, Stephen. 1997. Phrenology, education and the politics of human nature: the thought and influence of George Combe. History of Education 26(1):1-22.
LDUGC-378ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Composite portraits, UCL Science Collections (Galton Collection), 1876-1879..
The Victorian era, obsessed with moral restraint and sexual moderation, led to a fascination for the classification of all that was considered as alien to these strict moral codes....
LDUAC-UCL1592ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Ceramic figurine, “Grotesque figure of nude distorted dwarf”, Institute of Archaeology Collections, date of manufacture unknown, collected early 20th Century.
At first glance, the ceramic figurine originating from Egypt during the Hellenistic period seems to hold little relevance to the eugenicist movement....