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October 6, 2008 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

The End

Tristan asked that I write a concluding-type article for this week’s science column, as this is the last Salient of the year. I interpreted this to mean that he wanted me to write about some of the strange pseudoscience of the past. Ideas whose time has ENDed, geddit? Yeah, I know it’s a tenuous link, but I got nothing else.

But first, a disclaimer: if you read this and say “Yeah, we’ll be looking back on climate change/evolution/immunisation in fifty years from now and be saying how crazy it was we all believed in that too,” I’ll hunt you down and throw a beaker at your head. The theories in this column have all misappropriated the credibility of science, as we students of this illustrious institution that “makes you think” should easily be able to discern. So, without further ado, I give you three ideas whose time as a respectable ‘science’ has ended: phrenology, trepanation, and homosexuality as pathology.


Phrenology is the idea that personality characteristics (cautiousness, benevolence, criminality) can be determined by the size and shape of the skull. Phrenologists ‘read’ the bumps of the head – which were thought to reflect the relative sizes of the ‘organs’ of the brain, each of which was believed to govern a particular personality trait.

Although there were critics at the time who argued that phrenology was pseudoscience, it was a popular ‘science’ of the 1800s, and taken pretty seriously by its Victorian followers – some of whom were pretty big names of the time. John Beddoe wrote about the supposed link between intelligence and jaw prominence of the people of Britain in his 1862 book The Races of Britain: A Contribution to the Anthropology of Western Europe. Those of greater prominence of jaw (and lesser intellect) were the Welsh, the Irish, and the lower classes (Beddoe also wrote that the Irish, like the “Africinoid” races had close links to early Homo Sapiens). But Beddoe was not regarded as some sort of quack in his day – he was a Royal Society fellow, and president of the Anthropological Institute from 1889 to 1891.

Phrenology enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence in the early Twentieth century, a time when eugenics – the belief that ‘undesirable characteristics’ should be bred out of the human gene pool – was popular across Europe and North America. Eugenics (and phrenology) had quite a sharp decline in followers after World War II, for obvious reasons.


Trepanation – scraping, drilling, or sawing a hole into the skull – was practiced in many prehistoric societies, and variously throughout history from Greek and Roman times, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and in the pre-colonial Americas. The reasons for practicing this extreme body modification were often medical in nature: for example, to relieve seizure, migraine, or mental illness, by letting demons escape the head. Despite the obvious risk of trauma and infection, there were people who survived this surgery, as evidenced by skulls found that show bone regrowth.

Homosexuality as pathology

Shamefully, the history of homosexuality as a mental disorder has a very recent (official) end. In Europe in the Middle Ages, homosexual acts were seen as akin to sins like fornication: sins that any man might succumb to. From the Nineteenth century and throughout much of the Twentieth, the idea of homosexuality as psychological deficit became the prevailing theory. Homosexuality was not only often illegal, but also cause for inhumane ‘treatments’. Alan Turing, one of the fathers of modern computing, who theorised the Universal Machine (now popularly know as the Turing Machine), was one victim of this pseudoscience. Despite Turing’s work for the British government, decrypting intercepted German transmissions during World War II, in the 1950s Turing was arrested and ‘treated’ for his homosexuality. This treatment included the administration of feminising hormones that essentially resulted in chemical castration. Homosexuality was not removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (widely used across the world for the diagnosis of mental illness) until 1973.

Well, thanks for reading my column, and thanks Tristan for publishing them. I hope to be back next year, with more superfun and mega-exciting tales from the world of science!


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