CEPI Curiosities: Physiognomy

CEPI Curiosities: Tales from Medical History's Strange Side

Greetings and salutations once again to all you enthusiasts of the medically weird. This is Kevin, back for another installment of CEPI Curiosities, our monthly journey down the rabbit hole of medical curiosities. Past installments have examined such varied topics as anti-drug cartoon specials, the differences between venom and poison, medical experiments on inmates, and health-related video games.

Regular readers will perhaps recall from my article way back in March on the stealing of Shakespeare’s and Mozart’s skulls that I briefly touched upon phrenology, the since-discredited practice of measuring character based on the shape and contours of the skull. If you recall, the impetus behind anatomist Joseph Hyrtl’s famous skull collection (located at the Mütter Museum for your perusal) was to disprove phrenology. However, phrenology was not the only attempt by scientists of the time to find a direct correlation between personality and physical appearance. Allow me to introduce you to physiognomy.

Where phrenology examines the entire skull, physiognomy is the act of using the physical characteristics of the face as a measure of personal character. Conceptually, the practice dates back to ancient Greece, and one of the oldest mentions of it comes from the Physiognomonica, a text attributed to Aristotle although his authorship of the treatise has been highly disputed. Aristotle or not, the author argued in favor of a direct quantifiable connection between the body and the soul. According to the author:

MENTAL character is not independent of and unaffected by bodily processes, but is conditioned by the state of the body; and contrariwise the body is sympathetically influenced by affections of the soul.

While the concept is an old one, the height of its popularity came in the late 18th and early 19th century (roughly around the same time of phrenology’s popularity). This time around the most influential name in the practice was a Swiss theologian by the name of Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801). His signature work on the subject was Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe, a sprawling, four-volume tome published between 1775 and 1778. An English translation with the less word-intensive title Essays in Physiognomy appeared in the 1790s and went through multiple editions through the 19th century.

Image of Johann Kasper Lavater, 17th century advocate of physiognomy

Source: Wikimedia Commons

As with its skull-fixated, pseudoscientific cousin, observations related to physiognomy originated by examining animals. Advocates of physiognomy believed each species held certain innate qualities (the lion as noble, the fox as crafty, the sloth as lazy, etc.) and that these qualities manifested themselves in some facial characteristic. The goal of the human physiognomist (that is the physiognomist examining humans, not a physiognomist who was also a human, although they would be that as well) was to look for manifestations of those physical traits in their human subjects. Lavater’s analyses were exhaustive, complete with images of various faces and the characteristics they represented. My favorite of which, from a condensed version of his work from 1832 titled The Pocket Lavateris recreated below:

An image of a face depicted in the physiognomy book titled The Pocket Lavater. The face was to represent cruelty and deception.

Watch out for this fellow!

So what to look for in a person, aside from the nefarious scoundrel above? First and foremost, Lavater argued there was a direct correlation between a person’s physical attractiveness and their moral character. In other words, the better one looked on the outside, the better they were on the inside. As Lavater explains, “It being granted that man is the work of supreme wisdom, is it not infinitely more conformable to wisdom that a harmony between physical and moral beauty rather should than should not exist; and that the Author of all moral perfection should testify his high good pleasure by the conformity between the mental and bodily faculties?” (Essays on Physiognomy 95). He goes on to add, “The beauty and deformity of the countenance is in a just and determinate proportion to the moral beauty and deformity of the man. The morally best, the most beautiful. The morally worst, the most deformed” (99). Furthermore, Lavater argued that a person’s moral character in life also left visual cues on the visage, as in the case of the miserly fellow below:

Caricature of a miserly man, from Johann Kasper Lavater's Essays in Physiognomy

Nature forms no such countenance; at least, no such mouth. Vice can only thus disfigure. Rooted unbounded avarice. Thus does brutal insensibility deform God’s own image. Enormous depravity has destroyed all the beauty, all the resemblance. Can any benevolent, wise, or virtuous man, look or walk, thus? Where is the man, however unobservant, daring enough to maintain the affirmative? (Lavater 110)

This aspect of physiogonomy made its way into mainstream popular culture through English author and playwright Oscar Wilde’s classic 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian GrayA friend of Gray, a handsome, young socialite, paints him a portrait. As the years go on, Gray comes to realize the painting has begun to age instead of him. Moreover, he further learns that ill deeds, such as driving a spurned lover to suicide and Gray’s murder of the portrait’s painter, lead to physical distortions on the face in the painting.

Going back to our original question of what to look for in a person, here are some stray observations. Clean teeth indicated good character but “long teeth” meant cowardice. Conforming to the logic of comic book superheroes, courage was directly proportional to one’s chin size; however, a pointed chin was a sign of artistic creativity. A large head demonstrated low intelligence. Small nostrils meant one was timid. Earnest character could be measured based on how close a person’s eyebrows were to their eyes. Speaking of eyes, the old adage of the eyes serving as the windows to the soul took on literal meaning in the work of Lavater and his disciples: brown eyes indicated kindness and vivacity, while blue eyes meant weakness, and the rare person who had gray eyes was temperamental and prone to anger.

As with phrenology, physiognomy was both shaped by and helped to shape racial and cultural prejudices of their time. White Europeans in certain regions were assumed a priori to be inherently superior than other races (for Lavater, ancient Greeks of the era of Socrates possessed the ideal facial form), and advocates of racist ideology turned to phrenology and physiognomy as scientific justifications for racial prejudice. I should also add that Lavater’s observations only applied to men, as women’s role, according to Lavater, was solely as complimentary and subservient to men (among his observations of women: “A woman with a beard is not so disgusting as a woman who acts the free thinker”).

Keen observers can see many of the same flaws between physiognomy and phrenology. They are both beliefs that based a great deal on assumptions are are difficult, if not impossible, to prove scientifically (how do you quantitatively measure a person’s honesty by measuring, say, the length of the bridge of their nose; how do you measure for courage in lions). It was a conclusion reached by anatomist Joseph Hyrtl who found no evidence of any common characteristics of criminality when he examined the skulls of dozens of European criminals.

Image of the Hyrtl Skull Collection at the Mütter Museum

Speaking of scientific challenges to physiognomy, in our next issue we will look at one influential scientist who studied the human face…by rigging electrodes to people’s faces to see what happened.

Until next time, catch you on the strange side!

2 thoughts on “CEPI Curiosities: Physiognomy

  1. Pingback: CEPI Curiosities: The Death of William Henry Harrison | CEPI@CPP

  2. Pingback: CEPI Curiosities: What Killed William Henry Harrison? | Mütter EDU

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