The volume of material in our special collections has grown since Whipple’s original benefaction in 1944 through a combination of further donations, deposits from other libraries and occasional purchases. Donations and deposits often come by association and their provenance is a key part of what makes them relevant to us. Purchases tend to be focused on items that fill gaps and are generally targeted for their content rather than their origins, but very occasionally the two come together, as in the case of this week’s featured item, a copy of the first American edition of George Combe’s Constitution of Man (Boston, 1829), signed by its sometime owner, William Ellery Channing.

Title page with signature

Combe’s Constitution of Man, Considered in relation to external objects, first published in Edinburgh in 1828, but later issued in numerous popular editions, was a seminal text in defining the philosophical basis of the science of phrenology. Primarily concerned with the relationship of the human mind to natural laws, Constitution occupies a special place in the author’s work for its theoretical focus. Elsewhere Combe promoted the practice of phrenology – the study of the shape of the skull to determine the relative size of different areas or ‘organs’ of the brain as a determinant of character – as a means to understanding the self, and thence, by encouraging a realigning of motivations in tune with natural laws, as a vehicle to improving one’s circumstances, where desirable. The science of phrenology originated in Europe c.1800 in ideas first presented by Franz Joseph Gall and was later developed by Johann Spurzheim.

George Combe (1788-1858), an Edinburgh lawyer, had been a disciple of Spurzheim since attending a brain dissection he carried out in the city in 1816, when he became convinced of the German’s approach to a philosophy of mind which he believed would supply the basis of a universal moral science. The Constitution of Man was one of a series of publications promoted during his extensive lecture tours that helped to popularise phrenology in the English-speaking world in the first half of the nineteenth century.


The Library has a significant collection of printed material relating to the now defunct science of phrenology, much of it acquired by donation in the 1970s following the disbanding of the British Phrenological Society in 1967.[1] This included a first and a few subsequent editions of the Constitution published in Combe’s home town of Edinburgh. But Combe also had considerable influence across the Atlantic, fostered in part during an 18-month lecturing tour from 1838-40, though we lacked a copy of an American edition to illustrate this part of the story. So at Prof. Jim Secord’s suggestion we set about finding one, and gladly secured a copy of the 1829 Boston edition from an online bookseller in December 2015.


The bonus moment came when the book arrived. Although not noted in the online description the title page bears the signature of W.E. Channing. William Ellery Channing was a celebrated Unitarian theologian in early-nineteenth-century America who engaged with phrenological ideas and who invited Robert and Cecilia Combe to tea during their stay in Boston during their US tour in the late 1830s.[2]



The Boston copy of Combe was already a find for its original binding (sadly now fragile) and general good condition as an example of early nineteenth-century machine-press book. But the presence of Channing’s signature affords it an even more special place in our collection.


[1] Read more about the Whipple’s Phrenology Collection here:

[2] Digitised copy of letter from William Ellery Channing to George Combe available from Claremont Colleges Digital Library:

Anna Jones, Librarian