Interview with Rachel Walker, 2021 Murrin Prize Winner

Rachel Walker’s article, “Facing Race:  Popular Science and Black Intellectual Thought in Antebellum America,” EAS 19, No. 3 (Summer 2021), 601-40, won the 2021 Murrin Prize.

The Murrin Prize is named for John Murrin (1936-2020), Professor Emeritus of History at Princeton University, who was a scholar of early American history and an active member of the McNeil Center community. The prize is awarded annually for the best article in EAS.

For those readers who might not know, what are physiognomy and phrenology, and why were they so popular in the nineteenth century?

Physiognomy and phrenology were two sciences founded on a deceptively simple assumption: that people’s heads and faces revealed their intelligence, character, and personality. You’ll notice that I said “sciences” and not “pseudosciences.” That’s very deliberate. Nowadays, we scoff at physiognomy and phrenology, viewing them as absurd and antiquated disciplines that make a mockery of scientific progress. Yet before the emergence of modern neuroscience and psychology, both elite thinkers and ordinary people saw physiognomy and phrenology as legitimate sciences that could help them better understand human nature. Rather than dismissing the discredited disciplines of the past, I think it’s important to take them seriously—not because I see physiognomy and phrenology as legitimate tools for analyzing character (I don’t!) but because early Americans did. So, why did these sciences become so popular? Well, to start, they were accessible. You didn’t need a college education or fancy laboratory to read heads and faces. All you had to do was surround yourself with people. Second, these sciences promised to take the invisible and make it visible. They were rooted in the idea that abstract traits—like intelligence, virtue, generosity, or combativeness—could be seen in the human body. By making character observable, physiognomy and phrenology made it seem tangible, knowable, and measurable. Third, physiognomy and phrenology furnished scientific evidence for the concept of meritocracy. Yes, these sciences solidified the notion that some people’s brains and bodies were better than other’s. But they also allowed for the possibility of mental and physical improvement. Physiognomists and phrenologists argued that people’s external features would become more beautiful as their inner nature improved. This was a hopeful notion. It allowed Americans to believe that change was possible—that they, too, might develop cultivated minds and beautiful bodies, so long as they worked hard enough. 

Figure 1. By carefully crafting his public image, Douglass used visual culture to convey a positive vision of Black physiognomy and genius. He resented white people’s depictions of Black heads and faces, arguing that “The European face is drawn in harmony with the highest ideas of beauty, dignity, and intellect.” By contrast, white artists, ethnologists, and phrenologists typically depicted Black Americans “with the features distorted, lips exaggerated, forehead depressed—and the whole expression of the countenance made to harmonize with the popular idea of negro imbecility and degradation.” Douglass used his own face as a refutation of scientific racism, ultimately becoming the most photographed nineteenth-century American. Profile portrait of Frederick Douglass, ca. 1858. Courtesy of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Rights and Reproductions.

How did you come to your project exploring physiognomy and phrenology and Black intellectual thought?

Back in 2015, I was looking through old copies of the Anglo-African Magazine at the Library Company of Philadelphia. I found a set of articles by the Black intellectual William J. Wilson. In the series, Wilson guided readers through a fictional picture gallery. As he described a set of imaginary artworks, Wilson provided vivid and rather scientific descriptions of Black heads and faces in order to make broader claims about the Black mind (and about racial equality and human nature more generally). Since I had recently read Christopher Lukasik’s book about physiognomy, Discerning Characters (2010), I recognized that Wilson was using physiognomic language. But why? Wasn’t physiognomy a science that white scientists used to rationalize and justify racism? Why would a Black abolitionist embrace such a discriminatory discipline? After that, I kept digging. I soon realized that Wilson wasn’t unique. Other Black intellectuals embraced physiognomy—and phrenology, too. My task was to figure out why. 

Figure 2. An illustration of Camper’s facial angle, from Dissertation sur les variétés naturelles qui caractérisent la physionomie des hommes des divers climats et des différens ages, was an anatomical measurement that white thinkers used to defend scientific racism. They argued that facial angles closer to 90 degrees reflected both physical and mental refinement, while smaller facial angles signified degradation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they also contended that white people had larger facial angles (and thus more sophisticated brains). This image portrays a Caucasian physiognomy super-imposed upon a Black skull. Readers were supposed to note the larger facial angle of the white figure. An illustration of Camper’s facial angle, from Dissertation sur les variétés naturelles qui caractérisent la physionomie des hommes des divers climats et des différens ages (Paris: Chez Francart, 1792). Courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia, Rights and Reproductions.

How does analyzing the creative ways that Black intellectuals used physiognomy and phrenology to their own benefit shift our understanding of these popular sciences?

Today, most people think of physiognomy and phrenology as harmful forerunners to scientific racism, sexism, and biological determinism. And that’s true! Physiognomy and phrenology provided an ostensibly rational justification for discrimination.  Even so, some of the most enthusiastic facial and cranial analyzers in the United States were not defenders of the status quo. They were political radicals, feminist thinkers, and Black abolitionists. Why, then, would Black Americans embrace the very disciplines that white people were using to challenge their humanity? The answer is complicated. For one, many Black Americans agreed that heads and faces did, indeed, reveal character. They simply argued that white people had been reading Black minds and bodies incorrectly. If they could only provide people with a new way of seeing Black genius, they ventured, they might use science to fight for racial justice. Some Black Americans also saw physiognomy and phrenology as ethical alternatives to more deterministic sciences (like Samuel Morton’s craniometry), which insisted that human potential was determined at birth and inscribed in the bones of every person’s body. Physiognomy and phrenology certainly had deterministic elements—and they did a lot of harm. Still, many of the most influential physiognomists and phrenologists believed that society could be reformed—and that every person could improve their mind, body, and social position. As a result, some Black activists embraced these sciences.  

Figure 3. In the 1850s and 1860s, Black intellectuals emphasized Wheatley’s “finely formed” forehead, facial beauty, and ninety-degree facial angle. In the scientific culture of this time period, these traits were seen as signs of intellectual refinement. “Phillis Wheatley, Negro servant to Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston,” frontispiece for Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London: Printed for Archibald Bell, bookseller 1773). Courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia, Rights and Reproductions.

What role does visual culture play in your research?

In recent years, scholars have done phenomenal work to show how Black Americans strategically crafted their public image through visual culture. I’ve built on that research. What I’m adding, I’d say, is a reminder that we need to think seriously about how early Americans would have read these images. What skills were they using to interpret portraits? When they looked at other people, what did they see? How did they create cultural meaning from physical bodies? And how did they justify their beliefs? Because physiognomy and phrenology were so ubiquitous in the nineteenth century, I’d argue that we simply can’t analyze early American visual culture without first understanding the impact of these sciences. They provided the scientific toolkit that people used to make sense of race, gender, and other forms of human difference.  

Figure 4. Black Americans found popular sciences like physiognomy and phrenology appealing in part because white phrenologists tended to be anti-slavery in sympathy. While American phrenologists undoubtedly forwarded the intellectual project of white supremacy, they occasionally published positive portrayals of Black minds and bodies. This portrait depicts Sarah Margru Kinson Green, one of the Amistad captives. In the accompanying description, the phrenologists emphasized her “broad and high” forehead (seen as a sign of mental refinement) and argued that her head depicted “independence, perseverance, energy, and unusual intellectual powers; remarkable memory, and the faculty of acquiring education.” Bust-length portrait of Sarah Margru Kinson Green, American Phrenological Journal (New York), July 1, 1850. The Library Company of Philadelphia, Rights and Reproductions.

What does your work tell us about the evolution of race science in the early U.S.?

On the one hand, my work tells a familiar story: early Americans used science to construct ideas about race, and white people used science as a tool of racial oppression. On the other hand, my research reminds us that white men were not the only people practicing science. Black Americans, too, used disciplines like physiognomy and phrenology to understand race. They simply read bodies differently than their white counterparts. Of course, it’s tempting to imagine that Black Americans universally rejected physiognomy and phrenology, somehow presciently recognizing them as harmful and discriminatory pseudosciences. Ultimately, though, I think it’s more useful to acknowledge that Black intellectuals were both products and creators of the intellectual universe that they inhabited. Black Americans were not merely victims of race science. They were practical scientists who developed their own ideas about brains, bodies, and human nature. In the end, they were also imperfect humans who coopted problematic ideologies and used them to advance the struggle for racial justice.


Rachel Walker is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Hartford, where she teaches courses on early American history and the history of race, gender, and sexuality in the United States. Her first book, Beauty and the Brain: The Science of Human Nature in Early America, will be published by the University of Chicago Press in Fall 2022.

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Twitter: @rachel_e_walker