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The study of the cranium to determine character enjoyed immense popularity in the Australian colonies from the 1830s. Phrenological activity was initially concentrated in Sydney, although Melbourne soon experienced the influence of craniological theories. Lectures on phrenology were delivered soon after Melbourne was established. In 1840 the Port Phillip Herald advertised a public lecture to be given on the subject. The status of phrenology was enhanced by some powerful adherents among Victoria's colonial elite, including Archibald Michie, who had lectured on the subject at the Sydney School of Arts before his arrival in Melbourne in 1852.

Phrenology lectures aroused great public interest, with many eager to hear a variety of self-appointed 'professors'. Criminals were the favoured subjects for demonstrations. In 1855 Philemon Sohier, at the time Melbourne's leading phrenologist, delivered lectures to capacity audiences with the aid of death masks taken from three recently executed highway robbers. Madame Sohier made models of these masks for the couple's waxworks in Bourke Street.

Phrenology was given a measure of official credibility in Victoria when the government commissioned and published A phrenological report on Aborigines, prepared by 'Professor of Phrenology' Philemon Sohier as part of the proceedings of the Select Committee on Aborigines in 1858. Phrenology retained a strong popular appeal into the 1860s. Practitioners of phrenological science, including Dr Blair, Dr William Edward Crook and J.W. Frost, continued to deliver lectures to enthusiastic audiences at mechanics institutes and town halls throughout the 1860s.

By the mid-1870s advertisements for phrenology lectures had disappeared from the pages of Melbourne newspapers, signalling the declining status of the science. Nevertheless phrenology continued to be influential through the efforts of popularisers such as Professor Shepherd, who in the 1880s offered individual head readings for two shillings and sixpence in the Eastern Market. Despite phrenology's diminished status in the later 19th century, it nevertheless influenced early 20th-century criminological theories.

Dean Wilson