New York Times
January 26, 2005


The Brain: False Assumptions and Cruel Operations

The Improbable Search for Meaning in the Matter of Famous Minds
By Brian Burrell
Illustrated. 356 pages. Broadway Books. $24.95.

A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to 
Rid the World of Mental Illness
By Jack El-Hai
Illustrated. 362 pages. John Wiley & Sons. $27.95.

In the summer of 1849, Walt Whitman walked into 
an office on Nassau Street in Manhattan to have 
his head read. Lorenzo Niles Fowler, a 
phrenologist, palpated 35 areas on both sides of 
the skull corresponding to emotional or 
intellectual capacities in the brain. Fowler 
rated each one on a scale of 1 to 7, with 6 
representing the ideal (7 meant dangerous excess).

Whitman received a perfect score in nearly every 
one of Fowler's categories, which bore such 
fanciful names as "amativeness," "adhesiveness" 
and "combativeness." Thrilled with his report 
card, he became an instant convert to phrenology, 
defined by Ambrose Bierce as "the science of 
picking a man's pocket through the scalp." Later 
he donated his magnificent brain to the American 
Anthropometric Society, which collected it on his 
death in 1892 and added it to its collection of 
elite brains.

There are quite a few such collections, scattered 
around the globe, and Brian Burrell visits all of 
them in his offbeat scientific tour in "Postcards 
From the Brain Museum." His wanderings take him 
from the Musée de l'Homme in Paris and the Wistar 
Institute of Anatomy and Biology in Philadelphia 
to the impressively stocked Institute of the 
Brain in Moscow, where the brains of Lenin, 
Stalin, Eisenstein and Pavlov lie in state, or 
states, having been sliced into thousands of 
paper-thin slices and stained for scientific 

But the study of what, exactly? Nothing at all, 
it turns out. The brains, many of them dried to 
the consistency of coal, or fraying badly in 
their formaldehyde baths, simply take up space in 
glass jars. In many cases they are inaccessible 
to the general public, relics of a bygone age 
when scientists believed that the brains of 
geniuses and criminals would certainly, when 
examined, display distinctive physical 
characteristics. They were wrong. But for most of 
the 19th century it seemed as if they might be 
right. Their doomed efforts provide Mr. Burrell 
with the material for his entertaining, 
tragicomic tale of scientific failure.