Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Combe, George

COMBE, GEORGE (1788–1858), phrenologist, was born in Edinburgh on 21 Oct. 1788. He was one of the seventeen children of George Comb, a brewer (who wrote his name thus), by his wife, Marion Newton.

The education of both parents had been scanty. George had a dangerous illness in infancy, which left a permanent delicacy, increased by the unwholesome surroundings of his home. He was sent to the parish school of St. Cuthbert's about 1794 or 1795, and in October 1797 to the high school of Edinburgh. His impressions of school were painful; for his first four years he was under a cruel master; lessons were learnt by rote, under terror of the tawse, and his intellect was undeveloped. At home, though his parents, from a consciousness of their educational defects, never talked of religion, they drilled their children by mechanically instilling the catechism and by long attendances at church. Combe received gloomy impressions of religion, learnt little, and afterwards strongly condemned the whole system. From 1802 to 1804 he attended classes in the university, where the laxity of the discipline had the advantage of giving a rest to his brain. In the spring of 1804 he was articled to Messrs. Higgins & Dallas, writers to the signet. The only other clerk was George Hogarth, whose daughter, many years later, married Charles Dickens. Hogarth was a man of intelligence, and helped Combe in his efforts to improve his education. Combe himself became the chief adviser and teacher of his brothers and sisters. In 1810 he became clerk to Peter Cowper, W.S., and in leisure moments read Cobbett and the 'Edinburgh Review,' kept a diary, wrote essays, and belonged to a debating society called the 'Forum.' On 31 Jan. 1812 he was admitted writer to the signet, and started business on his own account. Cowper helped him by becoming security for a cash credit, and Combe was afterwards able to return his kindness. The elder Comb died 29 Sept. 1815. George Combe was extending his law business, and for some years took charge also of the brewery. He helped his brothers, especially Dr. (Andrew) Combe [q. v.], who through life was his most confidential friend. His elder sister, Jean, kept house for him in Edinburgh till her death in 1831, and their younger brother, Andrew, lived with them from 1812. Their mother died 18 May 1819. The family affections were as warm between the Combes as between the Carlyles. In June 1815 Dr. John Gordon attacked Gall and Spurzheim in the 'Edinburgh Review.' Spurzheim immediately came from Dublin to Edinburgh to defend himself in a course of lectures. Combe attended them, was greatly impressed, and says that 'after three years' study (Introduction to American Lectures, 1838) he became an ardent disciple and then the most prominent expositor of the doctrine. The conversion was probably quicker. He visited Spurzheim at Paris in 1817, and appears to have come back a thorough believer. Others, especially Sir George Stewart Mackenzie of Coul, gathered round him. In the beginning of 1818 he began a series of essays in the 'Literary and Statistical Magazine' in support of phrenology. He gave lectures twice a week at his own house, and collected casts of heads. He wrote 'Essays on Phrenology,' published at Edinburgh in 1819. It sold fairly, and attracted friends and converts. In February 1830 the Combes, with David Welsh and others, formed the Phrenological Society, which in December 1823 started the 'Phrenological Journal.' Interest in the new theories increased rapidly, and Combe became convinced that they supplied the key to all philosophical and social problems. His interest in such questions led him to visit Owen's mills at New Lanark in 1820. He foresaw their failure, but his brother Abram was ultimately ruined by trying a similar experiment at Orbiston, Lanarkshire, dying, after much vexation and over-excitement, in August 1827. Combe began to lecture at Edinburgh in 1822, and published a manual called 'Elements of Phrenology' in June 1824. Converts came in, new societies sprang up, and controversies became warm. The first draft of his 'Essay on the Constitution of Man' was the substance of his lectures in the winter of 1826-7, and was afterwards privately printed. A second edition of the 'Elements,' 1825, was attacked by Jeffrey in the 'Edinburgh Review' for September 1825. Combe replied in a pamphlet and in the journal. Sir William Hamilton delivered addresses to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1826 and 1827 attacking the phrenologists. A sharp controversy followed, including challenges to public disputes and mutual charges of misrepresentation, in which Spurzheim took part. The correspondence is published in the fourth and fifth volumes of the 'Phrenological Journal.'

Spurzheim visited Edinburgh in the beginning of 1828. In the following June was published Combe's best known work, the 'Essay on the Constitution of Man.' The book made a great impression, though the sale was not at first rapid. In 1832 a bequest of over 5,000l. came into the hands of trustees by the death of William Ramsay Henderson. The income was partly applied, in accordance with the testator's desire, to lowering the price of the essay. A 'people's' edition was also published, and between 1835 and 1838 over 50,000 copies were printed; further aid from the fund being needless after 1835. In 1843 it was still selling at a rate of 2,500 copies a year, and was then appearing in Polish. The book gave great offence; many religious members left the society, and Combe was denounced as an infidel, a materialist, and an atheist. He incurred general unpopularity at Edinburgh, though the religious objection seems to have been heightened by his personal qualities. He was sincere and simple-minded, but rigid, tiresome, and unpleasantly didactic. Whatever the logical consequences of his teaching, Combe was a sincere and zealous theist through life, though his position in regard to immortality was purely sceptical. Dr. Welsh withdrew from the society in 1831 on account of their refusal to permit theological discussions.

On 25 Sept. 1833 Combe married Cecilia (born 5 July 1794), daughter of the famous Mrs. Siddons. The lady had a fortune of 15,000l., and was six years his junior. He examined her head and took Spurzheim's advice as to his own fitness for a married life. Her 'anterior lobe was large; her Benevolence, Conscientiousness, Firmness, Self-esteem, and Love of Approbation amply developed; whilst her Veneration and Wonder were equally moderate with his own' (Life, i. 298); and the marriage was thoroughly happy.

In 1836 Combe was a candidate for the chair of logic at Edinburgh, but ultimately eighteen votes were given to his old opponent, Sir W. Hamilton, against fourteen to Isaac Taylor. Soon afterwards Combe resolved to retire from business. His own fortune with his wife's amounted to 800l. a year, and he could make 200l. or 300l. more by his books and lectures. He took cheerfully some loss of income caused by injudicious American investments. The rest of his life was chiefly devoted to the propagation of his principles by writing and lecturing. In September 1838 he sailed for America, where he had been frequently invited to lecture, and he made a tour through the United States and Canada, lecturing, arguing, and making friends with various Americans, especially Dr. Channing and Horace Mann, well known as an educationist, until June 1840, when he returned to Europe. He was exhausted by his labours, but in September presided over the third meeting of the General Association of Phrenologists at Glasgow. He took a house called 'Gorgie Cottage' at Slateford, near Edinburgh. Phrenologists were now quarrelling among themselves. Two-thirds of the members of the association resigned on account of a profession of Dr. Engledue at the London meeting in 1841 that phrenology was based upon materialism. Combe had escaped these troubles by going to Germany in May, and in 1842 he gave a series of lectures upon phrenology at Heidelberg, studying German for the purpose under a teacher who translated his lectures for him. His health was declining, and he was advised to give up lecturing. He now bought a house, 45 Melville Street, Edinburgh, which was his headquarters for the rest of his life. He continued to write on various topics connected with his main subject, and to carry on a large correspondence. Among his friends were Robert Chambers, Cobden, and Miss Evans ('George Eliot'). Miss Evans spent a fortnight with him in 1852, and found him agreeable. In January 1849 Combe published a life of his brother Andrew, who died in 1847, and some heterodox sentiments increased his alienation from Edinburgh society. In politics Combe sympathised with Cobden, though disapproving his friend's extreme peace principles. His chief interest was in education. He wrote pamphlets advocating a system of national secular education, leaving religious instruction to the separate churches. He found an ally in William Ellis, author of 'Outlines of Social Economy,' and helped to support a school set up on his principles at Edinburgh, where he gave some lessons on physiology and phrenology. During his last years he was much occupied with the question of the relations between religion and science. He published a pamphlet upon the subject in 1847, which was expanded into a book, described as the fourth edition of the pamphlet, in 1857. His health had long been breaking, and he died 14 Aug. 1858; he left no children. His wife died 19 Feb. 1868. Combe's portrait was painted by Sir Daniel Macnee in 1836 and Sir John Watson Gordon in 1857. Engravings are given in his life. Combe was remarkably even-tempered and mildly persistent; he was thoroughly amiable in all his family relations, and liberal in cases of need, though his formality and love of giving advice exposed him to some ridicule. He was essentially a man of one idea. His want of scientific training predisposed him to accept with implicit confidence the crude solution of enormously complex and delicate problems propounded by the phrenologists, and for the rest of his life he propagated the doctrine with the zeal of a religious missionary. His writings were for many years extremely popular with the half-educated, and though his theories have fallen into complete discredit he did something, like his friend Chambers, to excite an interest in science and a belief in the importance of applying scientific method in moral questions.

Combe's chief works are:

  1. 'Essays on Phrenology,' 1819; in later editions, 1825 to 1853, called a 'System of Phrenology.'
  2. 'Elements of Phrenology,' 1824, eighth edition 1855; translated into French by J. Fossati, 1836.
  3. 'The Constitution of Man considered in relation to External Objects,' 1828, and many later editions.
  4. 'Lectures on Popular Education delivered to the Edinburgh Association,' 1833.
  5. 'Outlines of Phrenology,' reprinted in 1824 from 'Transactions of the Phrenological Society' for 1823; ninth edition 1854.
  6. 'Lectures on Moral Philosophy before the Edinburgh Philosophical Society,' Boston, 1836.
  7. 'Moral Philosophy, or the Duties of Man considered in his Individual, Social, and Domestic Capacities,' 1840, 1841, and 1846.
  8. 'Notes on the United States … during a Phrenological Visit in 1838–40,' 3 vols., 1841.
  9. 'On the Relation between Religion and Science,' 1847; enlarged in fourth edition as 'Relation between Science and Religion,' 1857. This last includes also 'An Enquiry into Natural Religion,' privately printed in 1853.
  10. 'Life and Correspondence of Andrew Combe,' 1850.

Besides these Combe published many pamphlets in controversy with Jeffrey and Hamilton and others, and upon minor points: upon capital punishment, 1847; national education,, 1847; secular education, 1851 and 1852; on criminal legislation, 1854; and on the currency question, 1858. In 1859 was published 'Phrenological Development of Robert Burns,' edited by R. Cox.

[Life of George Combe, ed. Charles Gibbon, 2 vols., 1878; Life of Andrew Combe, 1860: George Eliot's Life, vol. i.; Reminiscences of Spurzheim and Combe, ed. R. Capen, 1881; Frances Kemble's Record of a Girlhood, 1879, i. 251-5.]

L. S.