Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Fiction Interlude: My Short Story "The Phrenologist"

Although I am a historian, and thus write non-fiction, I'm pleased to announce that one of my works of fiction, a short story titled "The Phrenologist," appears in the new anthology Southern Gothic: New Tales of the South (New Salon Press, available for Kindle and other digital formats from

Nathan Mark Phillips provided
artwork for my story and
others in the anthology.
(Courtesy Mark Nathan Phillips)

I wrote this short story in 1987, when I was twenty, and I recently took it out, revised it, and submitted it for publication. I know the story may offhand sound racially offensive, but it is actually a condemnation of racism, as well as of anti-intellectualism in general (even more so when it parades as scholarship).

In the late 1980s this story won me a spot in the creative writing class of African-American author Ernest J. Gaines (The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, and other works.)

I excerpt the story here:

The Phrenologist
by Shane K. Bernard 
I have noticed for a long time that those who deny the intellectual importance of the volume of the brain have, in general, small heads.” 
— M. de Jouvencel, “Discussion on the Brain,” Bulletin of the Paris Anthropological Society, 1861

Doctor Pierre Maturin, a son of France, hailed from a family that for generations had produced noted physicians. He earned his degrees from the Sorbonne and the fashionable university at Edinburgh. He subsequently returned to Paris to practice as a surgeon, but, finding the competition discouraging, sailed to New Orleans in the summer of 1850, where he established himself as a general practitioner. He set up his office on the corner of Chartres and Conti, in a small stucco building adjacent to the Slave Exchange. This proved a fortunate site for the young physician, for prospective buyers often sought his services as a medical examiner of slaves. One soon found the following advertisement in the local newspapers:
SLAVEHOLDERS! PROTECT YOUR INVESTMENTS! Owners or buyers wishing to insure the health of laborers will do well by contacting me at 444 Rue Chartres. — Dr. P. Maturin
Maturin shortly distinguished himself as a specialist in the examination and treatment of slaves, and his new-found affluence gave him much leisure time to occupy as he pleased. This he employed in furthering his knowledge of medicine and physiology, and through his reading and correspondence he developed an interest in the budding field of craniometry, especially in regard to its function in determining mental capacity. “I have begun to accrue a collection of skulls,” he informed a colleague in France, “and will soon commence research on the current question of brain size and its relation to intelligence . . . what has become the new science of ‘phrenology.’”

Phrenology was a pseudoscience popular
in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Maturin’s prime phrenological interests were of a racial nature, formulated through observations made during his months as a medical examiner of the black race. As he wrote to his colleague, “I have found it to be a peculiar characteristic of the craniofacial structure of the Negro, that the jaw is much larger than that of the average white man, and that the back of the cranium — that part we call the occiput — is much more extensive in the darker race. It is my supposition that such anatomical distinctions, especially that of the skull, have a direct correlation to the obviously inferior intelligence of the Negro.”

He started his phrenological inquiry by devising and calibrating a special pair of calipers, which he wielded to measure, record, and tabulate the sizes of the twenty-two skulls in his collection. He realized that so sparse a number of crania would hardly provide enough data for his research, so he began to include such measurements as part of every medical examination. This system worked well, because heads of the living were easier to borrow than those of the dead, and nearly as accurate to evaluate.

The science book that inspired
my short story.

Maturin soon possessed a voluminous index of the cranial measurements of all his recent patients. Unfortunately, he had neglected to gather similar measurements for whites, whom he intended to use as his criteria. Maturin now subjugated every white client and acquaintance to his silver calipers, that he might, as he told them, “record for posterity the size of their splendid crania” and simultaneously advance his vital scientific inquiry. After six months, he had indexed three hundred fifty white crania, nearly equal to the number of crania he had previously measured of the black race.

When all the recorded sizes had been averaged, Maturin discovered to his disbelief no apparent difference between the sizes of black and white crania. He informed an acquaintance, “My method of measurement must be at fault, else the figures should have reflected what is plainly the truth. I have decided to abandon the caliper method and, instead, to employ a more direct means of determining the size of the brain once held — I write ‘once held,’ mind you, because my new method of direct measurement demands that I return to the use of skulls.”

To the same acquaintance he described this “new method of direct measurement”: “I have found a more accurate and simpler method, which I call ‘internal evaluation,’ the only fault of which lies in the need for a multitude of skulls. This method consists of filling each individual cranium through the hole at the base of the occiput — this hole we call the foramen magnum — with a medium, which is then emptied into a calibrated vessel. This reveals the volume of the cranium and, therefore, the exact size of the brain it once contained.

He added, “I have experimented of late with a variety of media, these ranging from water to molasses to mustard seed. But I have found the most reliable medium to be lead shot, particularly of the size called ‘BB,’ which is one-eighth-inch in diameter. Using this medium during trial measurements, the results never varied greater than one-one hundredths of a cubic inch no matter how many times I repeated the experiment. I might add that lead shot does not leak through small fractures as water is apt to do, is not so thick as to remain inside the cranium as molasses, and does not flatten like mustard seed. It is in my opinion the ideal medium.” . . . 

Again, you can purchase the entire short story, and those of other contributors, at


  1. Congratulations on publishing your short story (written in 1987!). I found the excerpt intriguing and the phrenologist outlandish. I'm looking forward to reading the full story.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I look forward to writing more fiction as soon as I finish my current non-fiction book (a history of Bayou Teche).