The Fowlers and modern brain disorder

In this chapter, Kristine Swenson turns to popular reform movements which arose in response to what mainstream medicine considered largely innate, unchangeable conditions. Drawing on the emergence of the American Fowler family – led by the brothers Orson and Lorenzo, their sister, Charlotte, and her husband Samuel Wells – as her central case study, Swenson considers the Fowlers’ empire of phrenological lecture tours, publishing, and therapeutics as a practice that not only kept phrenology in the public eye long after its dismissal from scientific practice, but also responded to the perceived ills of industrialised capitalism by touting progressive self-improvement and self-care. The Fowlers exploited the potential of phrenology as a form of practical self-help allied to hydropathy, dietetics, vegetarianism, dress reform, and temperance. As cultural fears of degeneration and race suicide spread, and the middle classes were increasingly seen as subject to the ‘modern illnesses’ of neurasthenia and dyspepsia, the Fowlers sought means of facilitating social and personal adjustment to the demands of a newly industrialised society. Their reform-oriented late-century phrenology promised personal improvement through proper living habits and ‘exercising’ of the faculties, and seemed to mitigate the harsh physiological and psychological consequences of Darwinian evolution and hereditary conditions.

in Progress and pathology