Historical Perspectives On Contemporary Issues

James Poskett — Materials of the Mind

James Poskett

Closed-captioning available on Youtube

In this podcast episode, we talk with James Poskett, author of Materials of the Mind: Phrenology, Race, and the Global History of Science, 1815-1920.

Phrenology was the most popular mental science of the Victorian age. From American senators to Indian social reformers, this new mental science found supporters around the globe. Materials of the Mind tells the story of how phrenology changed the world—and how the world changed phrenology.

This is a story of skulls from the Arctic, plaster casts from Haiti, books from Bengal, and letters from the Pacific. Drawing on far-flung museum and archival collections, and addressing sources in six different languages, Materials of the Mind is an impressively innovative account of science in the nineteenth century as part of global history. It shows how the circulation of material culture underpinned the emergence of a new materialist philosophy of the mind, while also demonstrating how a global approach to history can help us reassess issues such as race, technology, and politics today.

James Poskett was a 2013 to 2014 Research Fellow at the Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine. 

James Poskett is Assistant Professor in the History of Science and Technology at the University of Warwick.

Materials of the Mind: Phrenology, Race, and the Global History of Science, 1815-1920 (University of Chicago Press, 2019)

Insights from the Collections

The Consortium’s collections provide many opportunities to learn more about the history of phrenology and nineteenth-century popular medicine.
Our cross-institutional search tool allows researchers to investigate materials across multiple institutions from a single interface. With more than 4.4 million catalog records of rare books and manuscripts, the Consortium’s search hub offers scholars and the public the ability to identify and locate relevant materials.
Search the Consortium search hub.
Some archival materials related to this topic include:
Samuel George Morton papers, American Philosophical Society
George Combe Correspondence, College of Physicians of Philadelphia
Phrenological Examination Notes collections, College of Physicians of Philadelphia
William H. Helfand Collection of Proprietary Medicine Pamphlets, Library Company of Philadelphia
See also recent work from our fellows:
Kathrinne Duffy, Doctrine of the Skull: Phrenology and Popular Knowledge in Antebellum America
Paul Wolff Mitchell, Human Remainders: The Lost Century of the Samuel George Morton Collection
Brandon Zimmerman, An Empire of Skulls: The History of The Samuel George Morton Cranial Collection and Scientific Collecting Practices in 19th Century Philadelphia