Historical Perspectives On Contemporary Issues

Sciences of the Mind

A forum held online in collaboration with the American Philosophical Society on June 2, 2021. 

Held in partnership with the American Philosophical Society, this discussion brings together historians Courtney Thompson and Alicia Puglionesi to discuss the fascinating world of the mind sciences in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. During this time period, the human mind captured the imagination of the American public. Efforts to reveal the subconscious and to understand mental physiology inspired the creation of new technologies, modes of experimentation, and collaborations that aspired to make visible the inner workings of the brain. These developments had a profound impact on the production of scientific and medical expertise that continues to influence conceptions of race, gender, and mental illness in the present. 

Dr. Thompson focuses on the history of phrenology, exploring its connection to popular and elite theories of criminality. As she explains both in her presentation and in her book An Organ of Murder: Crime, Violence, and Phrenology in Nineteenth-Century America, phrenology constructed scientific ways of identifying, understanding, and analyzing criminals and their actions - ways which often recruited and justified folk notions and stereotypes of what criminals looked like and how they acted. Dr. Puglionesi recounts how and why psychologists and others interested in the mind investigated seances, clairvoyance, and telepathy in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although some researchers were interested in debunking frauds and con artists, most were interested in reconciling the mind sciences with the supernormal. Dr. Puglionesi's book, Common Phantoms: An American History of Psychic Science, tells this history and highlights the ways in which psychical research troubled the boundaries of science and its relationship to democracy and popular ways of experiencing the world. 

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To cite this content, please use footnote:

"Sciences of the Mind," Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine, accessed Month Day, Year, https://www.chstm.org/video/121. 



Alicia Puglionesi Johns Hopkins University

Alicia Pulgionesi is an adjunct professor and writer living in Balitmore. She received her Ph.D. in the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. Her writing has appeared in The PointAtlas Obscura, and Motherboard, among other publications. She is the author of the novella Krall Krall (2013), the poetry chapbook Views from the National Forests (2014), and the book Common Phantoms: An American History of Psychic Science (2020). 

Courtney Thompson Mississippi State University

Courtney Thompson is an assistant professor of the history of science and medicine and U.S. women's and gender history at Mississippi State University, where she also chairs the Medical Humanities Certificate program committee. She received her Ph.D. in History through the Program in the History of Science and Medicine at Yale University in 2015. She has published articles and short essays in Isis, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Social History of Medicine, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Endeavour, and Perspectives in History, and she is currently the Book Review Editor for Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences

Insights from the Collections

The Consortium's collections provide many opportunities to learn more about the history of phrenology, psychical science, and their relationship to 19th and 20th century American society and culture. 

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:

Nahum Capen Papers, Harvard University 

Albert de Rochas Papers, American Philosophical Society 

Andrew Jackson Davis Papers, Yale University 

James M. Monroe Diary, Huntington Library

Further resources and related publications:

Puglionesi, Alicia. Common Phantoms: An American History of Psychic Science. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020. 

Thompson, Courtney. An Organ of Murder: Crime, Violence, and Phrenology in Nineteenth-Century America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2021. 

See also recent work from our fellows: