Posted by: whipplelib | November 30, 2011

Insanity by J.G. Spurzheim

This particular book (STORE 195:4) is interesting not just in its content but also as an item in itself. It was acquired by the Whipple in 2000 from the Anatomy Department Library and was presented by J.W. Clark of the Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy. Clark, a Cambridge native, was the well-known author of the 1901 The Care of Books, a work that focused on the history of libraries in Greece, Rome and Assyria. In keeping with Clark’s ideals, this book was managed quite carefully, as is exhibited in its detailed conservation report on the inside back cover.

Conservation report

Conservation report

It’s fantastic to read the state this book was in prior to acquisition and how, in true Clark fashion, it was cared for and repaired, post-acquisition by the Whipple, which has now rendered the book sturdy and readable.

Without these past caretakers, the Whipple couldn’t offer us this important phrenological text. Insanity is a complicated work in which J. G. Spurzheim, amongst other things, challenges, but doesn’t oppose, Gall-ian assumptions and generalizations of phrenology. A past disciple of Gall’s, Spurzheim was a physician and phrenologist in his own right at the time of publication. Within the work, after discussing that in most cases certain ailments are prescribed to certain head sizes or shapes, Spurzheim goes on to conclude that although deductions of this sort are “mostly” true, they are “not always”. He concludes, “Thus, in insanity, the configuration of heads, is neither to be overlooked, nor to be over-rated” (146).

Plate 1

Plate 1

What is also interesting about this text is Spurzheim’s apparent sympathy for the insane. In the introduction, he is calling for “an improvement of that branch of medicine”, mental health, as “physicians constantly make improvements in the treatment of other diseases, but… have done very little with respect to insanity” (2). While this is likely a preface for what Spurzheim is about to attempt in his book, namely contribute to this insufficient field, he echoes this concern for the insane in the last sentence of his work. “I rejoice in the idea that insane people will no longer be treated as outcasts, and that, by degrees, we shall learn to alleviate their sufferings, to ameliorate their condition, and to restore their health” (308).  While Spurzheim did not blame the mentally ill for their conditions, there are other motives at work here. By the early nineteenth century, concern with the insane was part of a larger battle for who would control this field of medicine, physicians or alienists. Spurzheim’s early text, which would have been extremely relevant during the emergence of Victorian asylums, was a claim for control of the field by physicians, and more specifically, by phrenologists.
Plate 2

Plate 2

Spurzheim’s text ends dramatically, both with this weighted sentence, and with plates depicting images of the heads and skulls of the insane. The first page reveals a series of idiots, “whose brains, with respect to size, were defective in differing degrees” (309). The second, shows “three heads, distended by water in the interior of the brain” and three skulls of idiots. These visual representations of what idiots and the insane look like, clearly different from the norm, are intriguing. The plates are included to visually demonstrate Spurzheim’s scientific work on phrenology, but they also seem to counter his bold and compassionate statement at the end of his book. Depictions such as these would not normalize mental conditions but rather objectify them, in contrast to what Spurzheim called for. These few anonymous floating heads are a generic and shallow representation of the community of the mentally ill, which doesn’t seem to make any steps towards their normalisation.


“John Willis Clark and The Care of Books” article at:

Johann Spurzheim Wikipedia article at:

By Andrea Kennedy


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