Combe, George, 1788-1858

Alternative names
Birth 1788-10-21
Death 1858-08-14

Biographical notes:

Scottish phrenologist.

From the description of Autograph letter signed : Boston, to an unidentified recipient in Salem, 1838 Oct. 24. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270515793

From the description of Autograph letter signed : Edinburgh, to the Reverend John Pierpont, 1838 Aug. 10. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270518623

Scottish lawyer and phrenologist.

From the description of Papers, 1829-1838, [Edinburgh]. (Duke University). WorldCat record id: 31445259

Scotsman George Combe was a highly successful lawyer who converted to phrenology in 1816 and became one of the most prominent proponents of that pseudo-science. Combe wrote and published numerous works in support of phrenology and founded the first of the phrenological societies, as well as the Edinburgh Phrenological Journal. His most famous work, the philosophical treatise, The constitution of man, was one of the best-selling books of the 19th century and created a storm of controversy.

From the description of George Combe letter to Henry Colman, 1846 Nov. 10. (Pennsylvania State University Libraries). WorldCat record id: 52577907

George Combe was a phrenologist.

From the description of Papers, [ca. 1822]-1836. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 154298226

From the guide to the George Combe Papers, [ca. 1822-1836], Circa 1822-1836, (American Philosophical Society)

The Phrenological Society of Edinburgh was formed on 22 February 1820. The first meeting of the Society was held at Hermitage Place, in Edinburgh, and was attended by: George Combe (1788-1858), Writer to the Signet; James Brownlee, Advocate; Andrew Combe, Surgeon; William Waddell, WS; Lindsay Mackersy (sic), Accountant; and, Rev. David Walsh. The Chairman of the first meeting was noted as George Combe and a moving spirit of the Society was Sir George Steuart Mackenzie of Coul, Baronet (1780-1848). The object of the Phrenological Society was 'to hear papers' and 'to discuss questions' connected with Phrenology. It would 'hold correspondence' with societies and individuals taking an interest in Phrenology, and collect and pursue facts and views that 'may improve and enlarge the boundaries of the Science'. Although Phrenology was a popular field of study well into the 20th century, it became discredited by scientific research. Phrenologists looked at the skull for indications of mental faculties and traits of character, and its principles were established by Franz-Joseph Gall (1758-1828), an Austrian, and by Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1776-1832) and George Combe. Gall had studied the heads of prisoners and inmates of lunatic asylums, and from his observations he deduced certain traits in the individuals, mapping out where 'murder' or 'theft' and so on were seated in the brain. Spurzheim and Combe went on to divide the scalp into regions where, for example, acquisitiveness, benevolence, combativeness, constructiveness, destructiveness, individuality, linguistic perception, self-esteem, wit and wonder etc were seated.

From the guide to the Records of the Phrenological Society of Edinburgh, 1820-1870, (Edinburgh University Library)

Phrenologist and lecturer.

From the description of U.S. letterbooks, 1838-1840. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 71068335

Phrenology was the study of the skull as a guide to individual human nature and tendencies - looking at the skull for indications of mental faculties and traits of character. Although it was a popular field of study well into the 20th century it is today thoroughly discredited as a scientific system, though it is still of historical and social interest. George Combe of Edinburgh was a leading exponent of phrenology during the mid-19th century and wrote a number of popular books on the system.

The son of a brewer, George Combe was born in Edinburgh on 21 October 1788. He went to the parish school of St. Cuthberts in either 1794 or 1795, and then on to the Royal High School. Between 1802 and 1804 he attended classes at Edinburgh University. In 1815, through an article in the Edinburgh review, there was an attack on the phrenologists Franz-Joseph Gall (1758-1828) and Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1776-1832). Spurzheim visited Edinburgh to defend himself through a series of lectures, and George Combe attended these becoming an ardent disciple and exponent in his own right. From 1818 he began writing and lecturing on phrenology, and in 1820 he formed the Phrenological Society and started the Phrenological journal . In spite of formal criticism of the science and arguments within the Society, by 1836, Combe had become a candidate for the Chair of Logic and Edinburgh University, though in the end his candidacy failed.

Combe's publications included: Elements of phrenology (1824); System of phrenology (1825-1853); and, The constitution of man considered in relation to external objects (1828)

George Combe died on 14 August 1858.

From the guide to the George Combe (1788-1858), and his System of Phrenology, 1836, (Edinburgh University Library)

Alexander Dallas Bache (1806-1867) was an important scientific reformer during the early nineteenth century. From his position as superintendent of the United States Coast Survey, and through leadership roles in the scientific institutions of the time, Bache helped bring American science into alignment with the professional nature of its European counterpart. In addition, Bache fostered the reform of public education in America.

On July 19, 1806 Alexander Dallas Bache was born into one of Philadelphia's elite families. The son of Richard Bache and Sophia Dallas, he was Benjamin Franklin's great-grandson, nephew to George Dallas (vice president under James K. Polk), and grandson to Alexander James Dallas (secretary of the treasury under James Madison). In 1821, Bache was admitted to the United States Military Academy at the age of 15, graduating first in his class four years later. He remained at the Academy for an additional two years to teach mathematics and natural history. While serving as a lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers, working on the construction of Fort Adams in Newport, R.I., he met Nancy Clarke Fowler whom he would later marry.

Bache left the Army in 1828 to begin an academic career, accepting an appointment as professor of natural philosophy and chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. Although his scientific interests were broad, he had a particular interest in geophyscial research. While in Philadelphia, he constructed a magnetic observatory, and made extensive research into terrestrial magnetism, and during the 1830s he began to be recognized as a leading figure in the city's scientific community. Bache was an active member of the American Philosphical Society and the Franklin Institute, seeking to raise the professional standards of both institutions and urging them to place a stronger emphasis on original research. While at the Franklin Institute from 1830-1835, Bache led a Federally-funded investigation into steam-boiler explosions, the government's first use of technical experts to examine a matter involving public policy.

In 1836 Bache became interested in educational reform when he was asked to help organize the curriculum at Girard College, of which he later served as president. Bache spent two years in Europe visiting over 250 educational institutions. The result of his visit was a 600 page study, Report on Education in Europe, to the Trustees of the Girard College for Orphans published in 1839. Although Bache was unable to apply the report at Girard College because of its delayed opening, it proved useful in overhauling the curriculum of Philadelphia's Central High School, where he was superintendent from 1839-1842, and was widely influential among American educational reformers, helping to introduce the Prussian educational model to the United States.

After meeting many of the leading savants during a European tour, including Alexander von Humboldt, Francois Arago, and Karl Friedrich Gauss, Bache became convinced of the need to professionalize American science. His opportunity to make an impact came in 1843 with the death of Ferdinand Hassler, superindendent of the U.S. Coast Survey. In the years before the Civil War, the Coast Survey supported more scientists then any other institution in the country, and Bache and his colleagues saw the Survey as a means of gaining federal patronage for science. After a campaign by his friends and colleagues, Bache was named as Hassler's replacement. Over the next two decades Bache transformed the Coast Survey into one of the nation's leading scientific institutions, becoming an important patron of science himself in the process . Bache was not just an administrator, but remained personally involved in field work.

Bache also led the reform of American science through his leadership of an elite group known as the "Lazzaroni" or scientific beggars. The goal of the Lazzaroni was to ensure that the nation's leading scientists kept control of the nation's scientific institutions, and they were instrumental in reforming the American Association for the Advancement of Science (of which Bache was president of in 1850). In his remarkably busy schedule, Bache was a member of the Lighthouse Board (1844-1845), superintendent of the Office of Weights and Measures (1844), and a prominent regent for the Smithsonian Institution, where he convinced fellow Lazzaroni Joseph Henry to become its first secretary. Bache also played a leading role in the creation of the National Academy of Sciences, serving as its first president. When the Americn Civil War broke out, Bache focused the Coast Survey to support the war effort, was vice president of the Sanitary Commision, a consultant to the army and navy on battle plans, a superintended for Philadelphia's defence plans, and a member of the Permanent Commission of the navy in charge of evaluating new weapons. Bache died in Newport, R.I. on February 17, 1867.

From the guide to the A. D. Bache Collection, 1833-1873, (American Philosophical Society)


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  • Education
  • United States Coast Survey
  • Authors, Scottish--19th century--Correspondence
  • Cooper Union
  • National Academy of Sciences
  • Phrenology
  • Girard College
  • Antebellum Politics
  • Early National Politics
  • Juliet (Fictitious character)--Manuscripts
  • Lighthouse
  • Geology
  • Science and technology
  • Geological Survey of the State of New Jersey
  • Natural history
  • Phrenology--19th century--Manuscripts


  • Lecturers
  • Phrenologists


  • Portland (Me.) (as recorded)
  • Cape Cottage (Me.) (as recorded)