The Irvin Department’s Weird Science exhibit is the perfect way to celebrate Halloween

The Irvin Department’s current exhibit, Weird Science: A History of Human Knowledge, traces the history of science at its most fantastical. 

The exhibit highlights the development of crucial technical discoveries like microscopy or astronomy and concepts like Darwin’s theory of evolution.  And while some of the sciences on display like alchemy led to modern day chemistry, some ideas, like the existence of intelligent life on Mars in desperate need of our help just seems downright weird.

But today is Halloween so we are setting aside the examples of the weird and focusing on the science of the spooky, the creepy and the wicked.


Phrenology, translated as “Science of the Brain,” is the concept that the brain is “the organ of the mind” and certain areas of the brain have localized and specific functions.  While this concept has a basis in science, phrenology was viewed as “a science and an art” because the phrenological practitioner inferred the subject’s moral and cognitive strengths and deficiencies based on the size and shape of the various regions of the skull.

To perfect this “science,” practitioners often viewed the skulls of deceased individuals.  The Irvin Department holds a cast of the skull of Robert Burns and the accompanying phrenological reading as well as several texts with diagrams and drawings of skulls often acquired by the author through precarious methods. 

Case of materials related to phrenology, including the cast of Robert Burns’s skull

One example of more nefarious skull acquisition is Samuel George Morton’s Crania Americana, or, A Comparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South America: To Which is Prefixed an Essay on the Variety of the Human Species. (1839)  Morton, an early ethnographer, used phrenology to bolster his argument that humans in different geographic regions were members of different species.  Morton argued that God created each race from a separate origin and intentionally separated them by geography.  In Crania Americana¸ Morton sketched and measured skulls of indigenous tribes throughout North and South America.  George Combe then used these measurements to provide phrenological insights into the different tribes on the continents, and Morton used them to support his theory that different human species exist in different geographic regions.  Masquerading as objective science, their conclusions only reaffirmed racial stereotypes of the time.  Morton often took skulls from burial mounds and graves long after the person had been laid to rest. 

Skulls from Morton’s Crania Americana

Mummified remains from Morton’s Crania Americana

Another example of science with more malevolent spirits at play is the study of the occult and demonology.  Humans have long tried to explain the world around them and the world beyond their limits through the exploration of the divine.  Many of the works on display are attempts to understand the divine and manipulate it for human benefit through science.  But if there is a divine, there must also be an evil.

Daniel Defoe’s A System of Magick: or, a History of the Black Art (1727) is a text that describes the history of the practice of magic and its connection to the Devil.  It also explores how the Devil has continued to insinuate himself throughout history, deceiving humanity.


Since the devil is an active participant in daily life, a science must be developed to hunt out this evil.  Therefore, hunting witches, who had sold their souls to the Devil, became a necessity to rid the world of malevolent spirits.  Joseph Glanvill’s Saducismum Triumphatus: or, A full and Plain Evidence, Concerning Witches and Apparitions (1726) was originally published in 1681 and confirms the existence of witches and their supernatural abilities and attacks skeptics. This work influence Cotton Mather and the Salem witch trials in 1692.

And finally, a work from the reading list of Dr. Frankenstein himself, Giovanni Aldini’s An Account of the Late Improvements in Galvanism (1803). Aldini was the nephew of Luigi Galvani (1737-1798), the Italian scientist who pioneered the study of bioelectricity and whose name is the origin of the term “galvanism.” Aldini popularized his uncle’s electrical experiments, most famously by applying the galvanic apparatus to the body of an executed criminal in 1803. The results of this performance were shocking: the corpse’s mouth quivered, his face became contorted, one eye opened, and his hand and legs moved. Galvanism and its potential for reanimating the dead were among the topics discussed by Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and others in the summer of 1816 when Mary Shelley began to write Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, and in her preface to the novel’s 1831 edition, she notes that these conversations had suggested that “perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things.”

Galvanic apparatus being applied to the head and body of a dog and the heads of bulls.

So this Halloween, don’t be afraid of the mummies, witches and monsters; instead view them as evidence of humanity’s desire for knowledge and the limitless creativity that we employ to meet that end.

Weird Science: A History of Human Knowledge is on display through December 20, 2017 in the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections Library in the Hollings Special Collection Library.

Jessica Crouch, Archivist

Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections

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