Franz Gall

Franz Josef Gall (1758 – 1828) was a German neuroanatomist and physiologist.

Gall was an early pioneer in the study of brain anatomy relating to function. As a result of his anatomical dissections, Gall made several important anatomical discoveries that still stand today. He made significant contributions to the understanding of brain physiology and was an early advocate for cerebral localization of function.

Gall is more often associated with the pseudoscience of phrenology, and his earlier work on cerebral localisation forgotten. However, Gall neither invented nor approved of the term phrenology, nor was he pleased to be associated with the phrenological movement.


  • Born 9 March 1758 in Tiefenbronn, Baden
  • 1785 – MD, University of Vienna
  • 1794 – Nominated as personal physician of Emperor Franz II – but declined
  • 1802 – Gall’s views on cranioscopy defining human nature were condemned by the Austrian government as ‘contrary to religion’, and were banned.
  • 1805 – Gall forced to leave Vienna and Austria
  • 1823 – Elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
  • Died 22 August 1828 in Paris, France

Key Medical Contributions

Whilst practising as a physician in Vienna, Gall developed the ideas that led to his ‘doctrine of localization’ as a combination of psychology and functional anatomy. Gall was a gifted anatomist, however his functional anatomy was not grounded in empirical analyses and bore no relationship to his very careful and thorough descriptive anatomy. Even Flourens, who severely criticized Gall and his doctrine, wrote:

Je n’oublierai jamais l’impression que j’éprouvai la première fois que je vis Gall disséquer un cerveau. Il me semblait que je n’avais pas encore vu cet organe.

Flourens 1863: 180

I shall never forget the feeling I experienced the first time I saw Gall dissect a brain. It seemed to me that I had never seen this organ before

Flourens 1863: 180

Gall’s ‘organology’ summised that, despite its similarity in appearance, brain tissue was not equipotential but instead was actually made up of many discrete areas that had different and separate functions.

…my purpose is to ascertain the functions of the brain in general, and those of its different parts in particular ; to show that it is possible to ascertain different dispositions and inclinations by the elevations and depressions upon the head; and to present in a clear light the most important consequences which result therefrom to medicine, morality, education, and legislation a word, to the science of human nature.

Letter from Gall, to Joseph Fr von Retzer

This theory went against the doctrine of brain equipotentiality espoused by Swiss anatomist Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777). Gall’s concept regarding the localization of cognitive functions, and that various mental faculties were represented in different places in the brain, was seen by the Austrian government as in conflict with moral and religious views of the unity of the soul and mind.

This doctrine concerning the head, which is talked about with enthusiasm will perhaps cause a few to loose their heads and it leads to materialism, therefore is opposed to the first principles of morals and religion…

Emperor Francis of Austria. 24th December 1801

Gall attempted to correlate physical aspects of the skulls and casts with prominent characteristics of human and animal behaviour or human personality. He aimed to provide empirical evidence to show that the brain was the undisputed organ of the mind and to identify the fundamental faculties and organs of the brain

The Paris Academy of Sciences, acting on order of the Emperor Bonaparte, asked the French neurophysiologist Jean-Pierre-Marie Flourens (1794 – 1867) to investigate Gall and his controversial views on cerebral localization. Between 1822 and 1863, Flourens wrote a series of reviews critical of Gall’s doctrine and of phrenology in general.

Major Publications



BA MA (Oxon) MBChB (Edin) FACEM FFSEM. Emergency physician, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital.  Passion for rugby; medical history; medical education; and asynchronous learning #FOAMed evangelist. Co-founder and CTO of Life in the Fast lane | Eponyms | Books | Twitter |

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