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Phrenology was conceived in Vienna near the turn of the nineteenth century by Dr. Franz Joseph Gall (1758–1828), whose studies into the organic structure of the brain resulted in his theory that the brain could be divided into thirty-seven “faculties” that are responsible for aspects of behavior. One of his students, Dr. Johann Spurzheim (1776–1832), expanded Gall’s theories, further positing that the formation of the cranium conformed to the faculties, and that by examining the skull an understanding could be gained of a person’s natural propensities. Before midcentury, phrenology had passed from medical circles to a wide popular base in America, primarily through the efforts of two brothers, Lorenzo and Orson Squire Fowler, and the army of itinerant phrenologists they spawned. As a result, phrenology lost much of its scientific credibility but played perfectly into the sense of restlessness that characterized the Age of Reform, especially through the Fowlers’ publications. which promoted radical therapies and reforms such as the abolition of slavery, women’s and children’s rights, sex education, health food, and temperance.

Phrenological heads cast in plaster or ceramic became commonplace adornments in American homes; according to an article in the Boston Christian Examiner in 1834, “Heads of chalk, inscribed with mystic numbers, disfigured every mantelpiece.” This unusual phrenological head is attributed to Asa Ames, who is known for a small group of portrait busts and full-length carvings, mostly of children, created between 1847 and 1851, the year of his death. The carvings are characterized by a sense of quiet in the beautifully modeled faces, the treatment of hair as a series of precise incised lines, and the careful details of dress. The museum’s phrenological head was probably carved in 1850, while Ames was living with the family of Dr. Harvey Marvin in upstate New York. Dr. Marvin had dabbled in phrenology and other alternative medicines and was in the process of establishing a hydropathy, or water-cure, clinic at the time; Ames was suffering from tuberculosis, and town tradition states that he was under Dr. Marvin’s care. The bust sheds light on the proliferation of phrenology into even the most rural areas by the middle of the nineteenth century and stands as a poignant testimony to the artist’s search for a cure before the age of antibiotics.