The Brain: False Assumptions and Cruel Operations
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 study.

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.