The beautiful skulls of Schiller and the Georgian girl

The beautiful skulls of Schiller and the Georgian girl

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Isak Dinesen, in one of her gothic tales about art and memory, spins a story of a nobleman’s startling recognition of a prostitute he once  loved and abandoned. He saw her likeness in the beauty of a young woman’s skull used by an artist friend.
After we had discussed his pictures, and art in general, he said that he would show me the prettiest thing that he had in his studio. It was a skull from which he was drawing. He was keen to explain its rare beauty to me. “It is really,” he said, “the skull of a young woman [. . .].” The white polished bone shone in the light of the lamp, so pure. And safe. In those few seconds I was taken back to my room [. . .] with the silk fringes and the heavy curtains, on a rainy night of fifteen years before.
(Dinesen 1991, 106‒107)

Author: Robert J. Richards

Robert J. Richards (born 1942) is an author and the Morris Fishbein Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Science and Medicine at the University of Chicago. He has written or edited seven books about the history of science as well as dozens of articles.
He has won several awards, including the Gordon J. Laing Award, the Quantrell Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching, the Pfizer Award, the George Sarton Medal from the History of Science Society and the Laing Prize from the University of Chicago Press and earned a Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship.[1] Richards earned two PhDs; one in the History of Science from the University of Chicago and another in Philosophy from St. Louis University


The skulls pictured in Figure 9.1 have also been thought rare beauties and evocative of something more. On the left is the skull of a nameless, young Caucasian female from the Georgian region. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, the great anatomist and naturalist, celebrated this skull, prizing it because of “the admirable beauty of its formation” (bewundernswerthen Schönheit seiner Bildung). He made the skull an aesthetic standard, and like the skull in Dinesen’s tale, it too recalled a significant history (Blumenbach 1802, no. 51). She was a young woman captured during the Russo-Turkish war (1787–1792) and died in prison; her dissected skull had been sent to Blumenbach in 1793 (Dougherty and Klatt 2006‒2015, IV, 256‒257). On the right is the skull of Friedrich Schiller, the famous German poet, as represented by Carl Gustav Carus, premier anatomist and artist of the early nineteenth century. Though Immanuel Kant had a large, powerful skull, Carus did not think it beautiful (Carus 1845, Tafel 1). He regarded the beauty of Schiller’s skull as an index of harmonious intellectual and artistic accomplishment.

These skulls and others were used to scale the human races during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The period had seen a number of such attempts, which applied a variety of metrics: the relation of the width to the length of the skull; the dimensions of its bony plates; the so-called facial angle; the internal cranial capacity of the skull, essentially a proxy for the size of the brain. Some of these studies, as well as their successors ‒ for instance, Francis Galton’s superimposed photographs of social types, Nazi portrayals of racial types, William Sheldon’s classification of body types (ectomorph, mesomorph, endomorph) ‒ assumed that the scientific study of external, physical features would reveal psychological, intellectual, and moral characteristics. But the mathematics of skulls was not the only measure used. Surprisingly another criterion, as exemplified by the skulls of the Georgian female and Schiller, was aesthetic: the proportions, the symmetry, and the je-ne-sais-quoi of beauty.

Those researchers who studied skulls formed two distinct groups at the turn of the eighteenth century. One group argued that the physical features of skulls ‒ including their aesthetic qualities ‒ represented different human types and were permanent, revealing the mental characteristics of the several races; such physical distinctions permitted the scaling of the races into higher and lower in regard to intelligence, talent, and moral disposition. The other group also made careful measurements of the physical features of skulls ‒ again, including judgments of beauty ‒ but the members of this group contended that such features were impermanent and variable. They maintained that no hierarchical differences of intellect or morals could be detected among the races. What explains the different conclu- sions reached by the two groups? The same criteria and comparable methods of measurement were used by both, but their judgments made about the races were startlingly different. Can anything systematic be said about what led to these contrary results? I especially wish to focus on the criterion of beauty: what is a beautiful skull? Why should a beautiful skull tell you anything about the qualities of a person or race? These are the principal questions I will pursue in this essay; and they are not merely historical curiosities, since aesthetic traits today continue to be used as markers of race and are embraced in evolutionary and cultural theories. Beauty, as these skulls show, is more than skin deep.

After some preliminary considerations of the social context and racial classifications, I will attend to four representative craniologists: Friedrich Tiedemann, Samuel George Morton, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, and Carl Gustav Carus. Both Tiedemann and Morton took exacting measurements of skulls, especially cranial capacity. Tiedemann’s pioneering work on skull measurement became part of the evidence used in the slavery debates that occurred in England and Germany; he argued that the races differed little in terms of cranial size. Morton, who amassed a large collection of skulls, contended that the races demonstrated differ- ent capacities and could be arranged in a hierarchy. Blumenbach thought aesthetic qualities of skulls distinguished the races, though racial features were nonetheless quite variable and subject to environmental alteration. Carus also believed the skulls of the various races ‒ and the skulls of individuals ‒ differed by reason of aesthetic qualities, but those qualities and other metric features were relatively unchanging. After about 1850, the literature crackled with skulls, but most of these studies were variations on and extensions of the examinations conducted by these four naturalists (David and Thurman 1867; Engel 1851; Huschke 1854; Meigs 1857; Zeune 1846).

The social and conceptual context

Travels of adventure and trade

Several social and conceptual events helped focus interest on skull measurement during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Travel and trade had increased significantly during the last half of the eighteenth century, bringing Europeans into contact with other peoples. Captain James Cook, for example, made three famous trips to the islands of the South Pacific, New Zealand, and Australia (1768‒1771, 1772‒1775, 1776‒1779), and brought back unusual plants and animals, as well as tales of exotic, aboriginal peoples. The trading companies formed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries ‒ especially the British East India Company and the Dutch East and West India Companies ‒ brought Euro- peans into contact with a variety of different populations. The Dutch East India Company (1602‒1799), for instance, carried around 975,000 merchants, traders, and workers to Indonesia, India, Ceylon, Japan, China, Vietnam, and the islands in the South China Sea; many returned to Europe with tales of the inhabitants of those foreign shores (de Vries and van der Woude 1997, 75). These tales, of course, stimulated curiosity about the range and character of the different human groups and their relation to the man-like apes discovered in Africa and the Indies.

Slavery made poignant the question of the level of humanity found in Africa, in the Americas, and in other regions of the newly explored globe. During the eighteenth century, the number of slaves carried by European ships (Dutch, Brit- ish, Portuguese, and French) reached about six million individuals (Lovejoy 1982, 473‒501). Both slavers and abolitionists, at least those of a sensitive nature, had elevated interests in the more theoretical question of the intellectual and moral status of Africans. In the newly established United States of America, as the Native Americans were pushed further west, the same question of justification for wretched treatment arose.
The interest in skulls

The two most important reasons for the focus on skulls in scaling the human races are quite simple: skulls encase that part regarded as the essence of the human, the brain; skulls thus evoke who we are or were ‒ think of Dinesen’s story of the young woman’s skull or Hamlet’s address to the skull of Yorick, a fellow of infinite jest. The skull always carries the ineradicable whiff of mortality, awakening that deeply seated fear we always carry; it thus evokes fascination and apprehension. The other reason for interest in skulls, equally important for natural science at the turn of the eighteenth century: skulls can be measured.

The great advance in science since the beginning of the Enlightenment has come through precise measurement, the mathematizing of the world picture. The historian of science Charles Gillispie has argued that disciplines became objective and thus truly scientific only when they became quantitative (Gillispie 1960). While Gillispie’s criterion would leave a great deal out of the history of science that most individuals would regard as scientific, his view was quite compatible with that of Kant, whose theoretical considerations weighed heavily with German naturalists. Kant famously contended, “in every particular doctrine of nature only so much proper science can be met as there is mathematics therein” (Kant 1956, V, 14 [A IX]). Skulls could be mathematized ‒ and they traveled well.