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Microcephaly is a word that has come from nowhere to the newspapers’ front pages in a surprisingly short time, owing to the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil coinciding with the preparations for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Congenital brain defects were of course not unknown to past obstetricians. A Victorian doctor or midwife thought it was worth having a photograph made of this case of brain hernia or encephalocele in Hammersmith in 1869.
The public however might never hear of them. The London 1829 edition of ‘Aristotle’s masterpiece’ mentions twins, conjoint twins, stillbirths, and “monsters” (chapter XVI, pp. 90-96), but nothing resembling the Hammersmith photograph above.
More widely accessible was the exhibition of people with microcephaly to the paying public in shows and fairs. There was a famous pair of microcephalous people called Bartola and Maximo, possibly from El Salvador, who were extensively exhibited in the 1850s and 1860s. An account of their “discovery” was published in a puffing pamphlet, and they were the subject of an international tsunami of newspaper articles, learned studies, posters, photographs and handbills, comparable to the publicity given to the Siamese twins in the 1830s.
The unique selling point of Bartola and Maximo was that they were supposed to be Aztecs, the name given in the 19th century to the ancient people of Mexico before the Spanish conquest. Alexander von Humboldt had published several Aztec painted scrolls representing humans with backward sloping skulls, and the origin of the these new “Aztecs” in Central America invited the comparison.
The belief was heavily promoted by their manager that these were rare survivors from an ancient tribe which had been superseded in the process of evolution. Enlightenment craniologists such as Pieter Camper (1722-1789) regarded the development of the upright forehead as the culmination of human evolution: as the human species developed, its brain expanded, and the head became taller. This index of intelligence was seen in the idealised representation of the god Apollo in Greek and Roman art, where the god tends to have a forehead approaching the vertical [Bindman].
Apollo was the exemplar, rather than Zeus or Ares, because Apollo was the patron of mental actitivities such as arts and sciences including music and medicine. The print above was published as a model for art students to copy: this impression in the Wellcome Library has had squaring-up marks pencilled on it by a student to aid copying, thus diffusing the image.
The idea that the ‘macrocephalous’ Apollo was the apex of civilization is shown in two etchings based on the views of the physiognomist Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801). The first shows twelve stages leading from the frog to a human being looking something like Maximo and Bartola:
while the second etching takes us through the following sequence, from the microcephalic state of our “Aztecs” to the macrocephalic Apollo Belvedere:
In the early 19th century a modern equivalent to Apollo was noted by phrenologists: the French savant Georges Cuvier (1769-1832). The colossal head of Cuvier by the sculptor David d’Angers shows his impeccably perpendicular forehead.
The weight of his brain was celebrated (64 ounces), and he was the subject of many popular portraits.
Maximo and Bartola occupied the opposite extreme to Cuvier. Hence it is not surprising that they had their skulls examined by, among others, the obstetrician and painter Carl Gustav Carus (1856), the physiologist Johanes Muller (1857) and the pathologist and palaeontologist Rudolf Virchow (1867 and 1877). They were also the subject of an extensive scientific paper by the evolutionary naturalist Karl Christoph Vogt (1867) [Rothfels in Freakery]. In these studies by German professors, the “Aztecs” were used as case studies for one of the burning questions of the day: were they unique living representatives of complete development of an extinct race? Or were they the result of incomplete development in the womb, where the development of an embryo went though the same stages of development in nine months as the human race as a whole in millennia (“Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”)?
The small skull had mental consequences. Joseph Barnard Davis (1801-1881), one of the many serious collectors of human skulls, had in his collection the skull of a 40-year old man which he described in 1867 as “a microcephalic calvarium … This would contain an encephalon weighing only 36.3 ounces avoirdupois or 1027 grammes, assuredly the brain of an idiot” [‘Thesaurus Craniorum’]. By 1900 nobody would have been surprised to find a “backward boy” being depicted as in this profile drawing, made to enable educationalists to recognize cases in which they might labour in vain.
The diffusion of this “degenerate” physiognomic type was manifested in works by the French painter Edgar Degas (1834-1917). It has been suggested that his painting of young Spartans taking exercise shows it: the militaristic Spartans were supposed to be less interested than the Athenians in the arts and philosophy, and therefore less mentally developed [Lucy]. As Anthea Callen puts it, “The degenerate skull with an acute facial angle, jutting jaw and prominent cheek bones became popularly associated with low social class, ignorance, and further, criminal bestiality.”
Degas also executed two pastels of backward-sloping skulls, with the legend or caption “Criminal physiognomy”. The original pastels have been lost, but may well be lurking somewhere unrecognized because they do not fit most people’s idea of a Degas drawing. They are reproduced in Anthea Callen’s book.
If you have them: they may not be very attractive as works of art, but are of great historical interest by virtue of their place in the long historical sequences sketched out above.