George Combe (1788-1858)

Scottish lawyer and public philosopher best known as an enthusiastic proponent of phrenology.

GEORGE COMBE was born in Edinburgh and, after being educated at the University of Edinburgh and serving as a legal apprentice for eight years, began his own legal practice in 1812. Combe’s first exposure to phrenology was an article written by John Gordon published in the June 1815 edition of the Edinburgh Review that sharply criticized the work of Gall and Spurzheim; Gibbon notes that Combe initially ‘followed the lead of the Review, and in his own circle did his best to heap ridicule upon Gall and Spurzheim’s pretensions’ (94). After seeing Spurzheim perform a brain dissection in 1816, however, Combe was impressed enough to attend Spurzheim’s lecture series and become a zealous enthusiast. He helped found the Phrenological Society of Edinburgh in 1820 and published the 1822 textbook, Elements of Phrenology, as well as numerous articles in the Society’s Phrenological Journal. He was also interested in social and criminal reform, and wrote two other notable works: The Constitution of Man (first published in 1828) and Moral Philosophy (1840).

Jeffrey sharply criticised Combe’s second edition of Elements of Phrenology in the September 1826 edition of the Edinburgh, although he differentiated between lambasting phrenology and respecting Combe. Combe responded to Jeffrey in October and in December Jeffrey added a ‘Note to the Article on Phrenology’, in which he stated two objections to Combe’s response, but ‘acknowledge[d] his pamphlet to be written, not only with much acuteness, but, with the two exceptions we have noticed, with great propriety and fairness’ (ER 45:252).

Brian Robert Wall, IASH, University of Edinburgh



David Armand de Giustino, Phrenology in Britain, 1815-1855: A Study of George Combe and His Circle (Doctoral Thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1969).

Charles Gibbon, The Life of George Combe, Author of “The Constitution of Man,” (London: Macmillan and Co., 1878).



Return to the Encyclopedia search
This item's Geotag
This item on the Timeline