As we have a number of books in our Phrenology Collection featuring Joseph Millott Severn, either with him as the previous owner or as the author, I thought it might be interesting to find out a bit about him. Helpfully he produced a self published autobiography, The life story and experiences of a phrenologist, which hit the shelves in 1929.
Born in Codnor, Derbyshire in 1860, Joseph Millott Severn had a variety of jobs before settling on a career in phrenology. He had developed an interest in the subject when he was a teenager and after a move to London he studied under Stackpool E. O’Dell, receiving his certificate in proficiency from the London Phrenological Institution in 1888. After a number of years travelling around the country, Severn set up home in Brighton with his second wife Alice and in 1897 established the Brighton and Hove Phrenological Society with J. P Blackford. When not providing consultations in his premises he spent time lecturing, writing articles and editing the journal The Popular Phrenologist. He was elected President of the British Phrenological in 1905.
One of my favourite sections of his autobiography is the tale of his attempt to set up a dating agency, or matrimonial bureau as he calls it. His idea involved having a register of men and women of marriageable age who “wished to have an introduction to a prospective marriage partner whose phrenological and temperamental conditions would harmonise with their own”. He would charge a small fee and show prospective partners photos of each other to gage if they would be interested. He goes on to explain that his only attempt at match-making failed as the woman of the proposed pairing disliked the age gap, she being 28 and he 37. Severn explains that his dating agency was unsuccessful as he was lacking a permanent address at the time and was too busy due to his other phrenological work.
Severn saw phrenologists as architects of the mind due to them studying “the mental and physical structures of individuals”. He thought that phrenologists should be employed by the state as they would be able to help in the criminal and detective services, visit schools, colleges and asylums, and report on “the intellectual growth, progress and efficiency of many public institutions”. He also saw them having a role in business where they could help with employee selection. Severn also makes comments about schools, saying that they should be more about intellect than physicality and that governing authorities needed to set a higher value of intellectual achievements which would be better for the interests and advancement of national and world-wide affairs than “strenuous physical record-breaking feats”.
A master of self publicity, Severn often appeared in local newspapers and produced his own pamphlets about himself and his work. We are lucky enough to have some of these items, including a bookmark and a leaflet about his successful 50 years of marriage. They demonstrated how he believed phrenology had a role to play in every aspect of life, from schools, career choice, and marriage. He ends his autobiography by encouraging others to take up phrenology and stating that he wouldn’t change any part of his life.