Google/Erin McCarthy
Google/Erin McCarthy

How Evil is Your Head?: 9 Illustrations from a 1902 "Character Reader"

Google/Erin McCarthy
Google/Erin McCarthy

Meet Louis Allen Vaught. He was born in 1859, and his masterpiece, Vaught's Practical Character Reader, was self-published in 1902. The physical address of his “publishing company” was also, according to these advertisements, home to the dubious sounding Human Science School and the Chicago Institute of Phrenology.

Vaught was a physiognomist. Physiognomy had been a “science” since ancient Greece, and it waxed and waned in popularity over the millennia until the 20th century. Those who believed in it sought to sum up the soul and strengths of a person simply by looking at their physical characteristics—to apply structure to the natural instinct to judge on appearance, which humans have always done and likely will always do. (The slope of a brow suggests criminal inclinations, the cut of your nose indicates your suitability as a good accountant.) Vaught identified around 40 “Elements of Human Nature,” such as suavity, alimentiveness, and approbativeness. To each of these Elements, there is a corresponding head or facial feature.

Eventually, physiognomy became closely aligned with phrenology (the same concept, instead using only skull bumps), which was discredited in the 20th century. Though there are instances of revival, most people today put little stock in the shape of a person’s ear cartilage reflecting the shape of their spirits.

Vaught’s illustrations show that he subscribed to the “Bugs Bunny” philosophy of criminality. His sample subjects look somehow incomplete without a raccoon mask and a bag with a dollar sign printed on it. However, if you are able to imagine these cartoon characteristics as actual human ones, you might learn a lot about your community. Maybe even about yourself! Let’s find out just how evil your head is.

1. Tricky and Deceitful

The first lesson. Never trust a bald, pointy-headed 1930s gangster with Spock ears. That fellow is trouble.

2. About Face

Where phrenology focuses only on the variances in skull bumps to read character, Vaught’s “research” allowed him to add facial features to the list.

3. One Bad Mother

The inferiority of this woman as a mother is indicated by her concave “backhead.” This is the center of mother-love, and it bulges in a true mother.

4. Young Ladies, Beware!

This man’s head shows signs of an overly large Amativeness (sexual desire) region. He also appears to have a dishonest nose and a chin severely lacking in constancy.

5. Case Study 

The arrows indicate the proof of Vaught’s theories. Says Vaught, “Robert Louis Stevenson's talent was of the order of genius. He could not have produced Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde without a great development of the faculties of Form and Comparison. In a study of his head we were struck with the very great development of his faculty of Form.”

6. Constitutional Laziness

“Genuine laziness is the result of deficient Destructiveness, Combativeness, Approbativeness, Acquisitiveness, Self-esteem, Firmness and Conscientiousness. No one really likes hard work of any kind who is weak in the faculties of Destructiveness and Combativeness.”  Maybe so, but I bet this guy knows all the lines from The Big Lebowski by heart. I’d hang with him.

7. The Nose Knows

The husband is drawn with a touch more fear in his eyes than the wife. The Hope Element on this skull could use some thumping.

8. Man is Matter

Existential Crisis? It’s your engorged Alimentiveness and Amativeness Faculties.

9. The Source of Corns

This passage I thought really encapsulated Vaught’s theories and teaching style. That is to say, it’s easy to imagine the first draft of this book having been scrawled on an asylum cell wall with broken crayons. But we laugh only from the safe vantage of the future. In 100 years the DSM-5 might look like it was cobbled together by lunatics in celebration of themselves. And for that matter, I don’t believe any of the DSMs have ever been kind enough to try and decipher bunions, as the good Mr. Vaught has done for us. Thank you, Mr. Vaught. Science marches on.

Charles Dickens Museum Highlights the Author's Contributions to Science and Medicine

Charles Dickens is celebrated for his verbose prose and memorable opening lines, but lesser known are his contributions to science—particularly the field of medicine.

A new exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens Museum—titled "Charles Dickens: Man of Science"—is showcasing the English author’s scientific side. In several instances, the writer's detailed descriptions of medical conditions predated and sometimes even inspired the discovery of several diseases, The Guardian reports.

In his novel Dombey and Son, the character of Mrs. Skewton was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak. Dickens was the first person to document this inexplicable condition, and a scientist later discovered that one side of the brain was largely responsible for speech production. "Fat boy" Joe, a character in The Pickwick Papers who snored loudly while sleeping, later lent his namesake to Pickwickian Syndrome, otherwise known as obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

A figurine of Fat Boy Joe
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens also wrote eloquently about the symptoms of tuberculosis and dyslexia, and some of his passages were used to teach diagnosis to students of medicine.

“Dickens is an unbelievably acute observer of human behaviors,” museum curator Frankie Kubicki told The Guardian. “He captures these behaviors so perfectly that his descriptions can be used to build relationships between symptoms and disease.”

Dickens was also chummy with some of the leading scientists of his day, including Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, and chemist Jane Marcet, and the exhibition showcases some of the writer's correspondence with these notable figures. Beyond medicine, Dickens also contributed to the fields of chemistry, geology, and environmental science.

Less scientifically sound was the author’s affinity for mesmerism, a form of hypnotism introduced in the 1770s as a method of controlling “animal magnetism,” a magnetic fluid which proponents of the practice believed flowed through all people. Dickens studied the methods of mesmerism and was so convinced by his powers that he later wrote, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a frying-pan.” A playbill of Animal Magnetism, an 1857 production that Dickens starred in, is also part of the exhibit.

A play script from Animal Magnetism
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Located at 48-49 Doughty Street in London, the exhibition will be on display until November 11, 2018.

[h/t The Guardian]

NASA // Public Domain
On This Day in 1983, Sally Ride Made History
NASA // Public Domain
NASA // Public Domain

Thirty-five years ago today, on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. She flew on the space shuttle Challenger on a six-day mission. She had previously helped build the shuttle's robot arm, and now she operated it in space. Not only was she the first American woman to go to space, she was the youngest astronaut in space, at age 32.

(As with many space-related firsts, that "American" qualifier is important. The Soviet space program had sent two women cosmonauts into space well in advance of Ride. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova flew all the way back in 1963, and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. They also sent various younger people to space, including Tereshkova.)

Ride represented a change in the previously completely male astronaut program. Although NASA had unofficially tested women in the late 1950s as part of the Mercury program, the idea of sending women into space was quickly discarded. NASA policy for decades was that only men would be considered as astronauts. It took until 1978 for NASA to change the policy—that year, six women became astronauts: Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Kathryn Sullivan, Anna Fisher, Margaret Rhea Seddon, and Shannon Lucid.

Ride and her colleagues were subject to an endless barrage of sexist media questions, curious how women might fare in space. They also encountered institutional sexism at NASA itself. Ride recalled:

"The engineers at NASA, in their infinite wisdom, decided that women astronauts would want makeup—so they designed a makeup kit. A makeup kit brought to you by NASA engineers. ... You can just imagine the discussions amongst the predominantly male engineers about what should go in a makeup kit."

Ride held a Ph.D. in astrophysics, two bachelor's degrees (English and physics), and had served as CapCom (Capsule Communicator) for the second and third shuttle flights, STS-2 and -3. She was an accomplished pilot and athlete, as well as a Presbyterian elder. She was closely connected to Challenger, performing two missions on it and losing four fellow members of her 1978 class when it exploded.

After her astronaut career concluded, Ride served on both the Challenger and Columbia disaster review panels. During the former, she leaked vital information about the Challenger disaster (o-ring engineering reports), though this wasn't broadly known until after her death. She wrote educational books and founded Sally Ride Science. She was asked to head up NASA by the Clinton administration, but declined.

Ride died in 2012 from pancreatic cancer. Her obituary made news for quietly mentioning that she was survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy. Although Ride had come out to her family and close friends, the obituary was the first public statement that she was gay. It was also the first time most people found out she'd suffered from pancreatic cancer at all; she asked that donations in her memory be made to a fund devoted to studying that form of cancer.


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