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The Scottish Nation

COMBE, GEORGE, a distinguished phrenologist, was born in Edinburgh in 1788. His father, of the same name, was a brewer at Livingston’s Yards in that city, a locality at one period at the back of the Castle, but now removed. His mother, Marion Newton, belonged to the family of Newton of Curriehill, They had seventeen children, of whom George, and Andrew were the most conspicuous. Their father is described as a tall, robust man, a staunch Presbyterian of the old school, and his phrenological sons report that he could never find a hat that would fit his head, and was obliged to have a block for himself. Their mother was energetic and conscientious. Neither parent had much education, and both seem to have been very strict in the religious discipline of their family.

George was bred to the law, and in 1812 passed as a writer to the signet. In 1816, when Spurzheim, the celebrated physiologist, visited Edinburgh, he attended his lectures on the science of phrenology, and reached a conviction which determined the character of his mind and life. He himself tells us that he was not “led away by enthusiasm,” but won by the evidence that the doctrine was “eminently practical.” He straightway set himself to study the opinions of Gall and Spurzheim, being convinced that they had a basis in nature, but as his mind had no scientific quality which could give him insight into the bearings of theory and practice, hypothesis, discovery and explanation, he stopped when he should have gone on. He admitted Gall’s anatomy of the brain, while he adopted a modified view of its functions differing in some essential respects from those of Gall and Spurzheim. Mr. Combe made his first appearance as a writer in a series of Essays in the ‘Literary and Statistical Magazine of Scotland,’ on the new science of mind. These papers were collected and published in a separate volume in 1819, under the title of ‘Essays on Phrenology,’ and in 1825 they were republished, in a revised and improved form, as a ‘System of Phrenology,’ in two volumes octavo. In 1820 appeared from the Edinburgh press the ‘Phrenological Transactions,’ which were anon followed by the ‘Phrenological Journal,’ a quarterly devoted to the cultivation and development of the new science, and combining with it ethnology as a germain inquiry. Mr. Combe, shortly after its commencement, became editor, and his contributions are easily to be recognized by the clearness, force, and elegance of his style. The ‘Phrenological Journal’ was subsequently edited by his nephew, Mr. Cox, and extends to twenty 8vo volumes. In February 1827, he read to the Edinburgh Phrenological Society the first part of a work ‘On the Harmony between the Mental and Moral Constitution of Man and the Laws of Physical Nature.’ This was the first form of his celebrated ‘Constitution of Man in Relation to External Objects,’ which was published in 1828. This remarkable work was eagerly read, and a gentleman named Henderson bequeathed a sum of money to be expended in publishing a very cheap edition of the book. Its success was immense. The circulation at one period amounted to 100,000 copies in Great Britain and Ireland, while in the United States its sale was unprecedented. It was also translated into the German, French, Swedish, and other continental languages. Through improvement of the public health, the author not only aimed at, but effected, improvement of the public morals.

Mr. Combe’s more popular works have influenced the opinions of the middle and lower classes more than any writer of his time, and there is no doubt that they will long continue to be read and appreciated for their vigorous and manly good sense and thoroughly philosophical spirit. It has been objected to Mr. Combe that, in his ‘Constitution of Man,’ he did not take a sufficiently high view of man and his destiny, but his answer has uniformly been, that the subject embraced chiefly man’s relation to this world, and in that aspect it must be regarded as an extremely suggestive and highly instructive work, especially calculated for the improvement and guidance of the classes to whom it is chiefly addressed. His other works are generally of a practical character, and manifest a decided command of the English language.

By financial writers Mr. Combe was esteemed “one of the clearest expositors of monetary science.” On this subject he exhibited his great power in various pamphlets and in articles contributed to the Scotsman Edinburgh newspaper, and this power, we are further informed, “was derived simply from his bringing each aspect of it to the test of the moral laws enforced in his work on the ‘Constitution of Man.’” And yet he had never been trained to commercial or banking pursuits; an “inflexible adherence to first principles,” and a healthy disregard of mere expediency, were the secrets of his power.

In 1833, Mr. Combe married Cecilia, daughter of the great actress, Mrs. Siddons. Dr. Spurzheim had visited the United States of America in 1832, and died there in a few months, and the disciples of phrenology in America invited George Combe to go and lecture to them. Accordingly, in 1837, he quitted practice as a lawyer, and, the following year, with Mrs. Combe, crossed the Atlantic. He spent nearly three years in the United States, lecturing in many of their chief towns and cities, and studying the manners and institutions of the people, and on his return he published his ‘Notes on the United States,’ in 3 vols. The years after his return were varied by continental journeys, too often rendered necessary by failing health. In the cause of education he was an unwearied labourer, a quiet but zealous worker for the benefit of his fellows; an unostentatious but determined teacher; the most persevering of philosophers in disseminating his peculiar tenets.

We are told by one well acquainted with his movements, that he contemplated lecturing on Phrenology in Germany, and, with that view, during a residence in Mannheim in the winter of 1841-2 made such exertions to master the German language as seriously affected his health, and brought on an illness that induced the abandonment of the attempt. He did, however, deliver one course of lectures in German at Heidelberg; and though, from the cause referred to, his journeys and residence on the continent were not, generally speaking, immediately devoted to the spread of his philosophy, the knowledge he acquired of the leaders and of the course of public opinion throughout Europe was of much value, and was always turned to good account.

The latter period of his life was one of very infirm health, the result, as he believed, of the early adverse influences which turned his own and his brother’s attention so strongly to sanitary subjects. He died 14th August, 1858, at his friend Dr. Lane’s hydropathic establishment at Moor Park, Surrey, and was interred in the Dean cemetery, Edinburgh. – His principal works are:

Essays on Phrenology, or an Enquiry into the Principles and Utility of the System of Dr. Gall and Spurzheim into the Objections made against it. Edin. 1819, 8vo.
Elements of Phrenology. Edin. 1824, 12mo. The same. 7th edition. Edin. 1835, 12mo.
A System of Phrenology. Edin. 1825, 2 vols. 8vo. Numerous editions.
Letter to Francis Jeffrey in Answer to his Criticism on Phrenology, contained in No. 88 of Edinburgh Review. Edinburgh, 1826.
Essay on the Constitution of Man and its Relation to External Objects. Edin. 1827.
Notes in Answer to Mr. Scott’s Remarks on Mr. Combe’s Essay on the Natural Constitution of Man. 1827.
The Constitution of Man in Relation to External Objects. Edin. 1827, 12mo. Numerous editions.
What should Secular Education Embrace. 1828.
Answer to ‘Observations on the Phrenological Development of Burke, Hare, and the other atrocious murderers, by Thomas Stone,’ Edin. 1829.
Letter on the Prejudices of the great in Science and Philosophy against Phrenology, addressed to the Editor of the Edinburgh Weekly Journal. Edin. 1829.
Lectures on Phrenology, with Notes, on Introductory Essay, and an Historical Sketch, by Andrew Boardman. London, 1839, 12mo.
Lectures on Moral Philosophy. Boston, 1840, 12mo.
Moral Philosophy. Edin. 1840, 12mo.
Address delivered at the Anniversary celebration of the birth of Spurzheim and the Organization of the Boston Phrenological Society, December 31, 1839, Boston, 1840.
Notes on the United States of North America during a Phrenological Visit in 1838-39-40. Edinburgh, 1841, 3 vols. 12mo.
Notes on the New Reformation in Germany, and on National Education and the Common Schools of Massachusetts. Edin. 1845.
Thoughts on Capital Punishment. Edin. 1847.
Outlines of Phrenology. Numerous editions.
The Currency Question considered in relation to the Bank Restriction Act. Pamphlet.
Phrenological Observations on the Cerebral development of David Haggart, lately executed at Edinburgh for murder. Edin. 1821, 12mo.
The Suppressed Documents, or an Appeal to the Public against the Conductors of the Scottish Guardian. Glasgow, 1836, 8vo.
Our Rule in India. Edin. 1838, 8vo.
Remarks on National Education. Edin. 1847.
Relation between Religion and Science. 2d edition. Edinburgh, 1847. 4th edition, called People’s Edition. Edin. 1856.
Answer to the Attack on the Constitution of Man contained in ‘Nature and Revelation Harmonious, by the Rev. C.J. Kennedy, Paisley,’ Edin. 1848.
Lectures on Popular Education, delivered to the Edinburgh Philosophical Association in April and Nov. 1833. 3d edit. Edin. 1848, 8vo.
The Life and Correspondence of Andrew Combe, M.D. Edin. 1850, 8vo.
Secular Education Lecture delivered Nov. 25, 1851, in Queen Street Hall, Edinburgh. Edin. 1851, 8vo.
Secular Instruction or Extension of Church Endowments. Letter to the Duke of Argyle. Edin. 1852, 8vo.
Remarks on the Principles of Criminal Legislation, and the Practice of Prison Discipline. London, 1854, 8vo.
Notes on a Visit to Germany in 1854. Edin. 1854, 8vo.
Phrenology applied to Painting and Sculpture. London, 1855, 8vo.
Refutations Refuted. A Reply to pamphlets put forth in answer to the currency Question considered. London, 1856, 8vo.
On Teaching Physiology and its Applications in Common Schools. Edin. 1857, 8vo. pamphlet.

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