Theo Mulder

The Brain Collector

The Turbulent Life and Times of Franz Joseph Gall

An engrossing and entertaining biography of the forgotten physician who paved the way for neuropsychology

Franz Joseph Gall dedicated his life to understanding the differences in human behaviour. Immensely famous and influential in 19th-century Europe, he revolutionized our conception of the brain and lay the foundation for neuropsychology. He also believed he could read twenty-seven different character traits — including murderousness, sex drive and musicality — by feeling the various lumps and bumps of the human skull. Today, you are more likely to spot his brain charts or porcelain busts at a flea market than recognize his name.

In this engrossing history, neuropsychologist Theo Mulder traces the lives of the Austrian Gall and his followers, the founders of the notorious pseudo-science called phrenology, as they navigate a Europe shaken by the French Revolution. Mulder leads us through Gall’s early, life-changing discoveries and paints the popular candlelit dissections he theatrically staged at his home in Vienna. When his lectures were forbidden by Franz II, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and his work banned by the Catholic Church, Gall embarked on a tour of Europe in a carriage piled high with human and animal skulls. He was undeniably brilliant and uncompromising, as vain as he was charming, a womaniser and a showman. Gall quickly rose to international stardom as he felt his way through the heads of Europe’s geniuses and criminals.

In his attempt to localize psychological characteristics in different portions of the brain, he should be remembered as one of the first to investigate the biological connection between the brain and behaviour. His approaches to mental health were far ahead of their time and his contributions to anatomy and anthropology were fundamental. His theories earned him the favour of the bourgeoisie, and the admiration of figures like Goethe, while bringing him into conflict with none other than Napoleon, for whom Gall’s biological and materialist theories were inconvenient at a time when he was pitching himself as a unique genius gifted with supernatural spiritual powers.

In Great Britain and the United States, Gall’s legacy would enjoy its greatest influence and fame, though ultimately cement his fall from grace. Carried forward by admirers and opportunists, Gall’s ideas came to influence every facet of society as they were applied in the fields of law, business, science and even art. While Gall’s initial work focused on the study of the brain, in both countries, phrenology transformed into a racist science, used to bulwark nationalism and colonialism.

Thus remembered, Gall was forgotten. Mulder’s account is a compelling plea to restore Gall to his rightful place in history and a meditation on the tangled relationship between science and power.

The Brain Collector is a colourful, often hilarious story about how easily and readily we desire a manageable (or controllable) world.

NRC Handelsblad

An outstanding book.

Nederlands Dagblad

Theo Mulder

Theo Mulder (b. 1953) is a neuro-psychologist. He was a professor at the universities of Nijmegen and Groningen as well as the director of institutes at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. His previous book, The Born Adapter: On the Brain, Movement and Change (2003), which surveyed…

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De Hersenverzamelaar. Het veelbewogen leven van Franz Joseph Gall (2020). Non-fiction, 344 pages.

English sample available

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