The Statistician Who Debunked Sexist Myths About Skull Size and Intelligence

Alice Lee and Skull

Alice Lee, one of the first women to attend London University, challenged the predominant notion that men’s brains were larger and therefore intellectually superior.
Illustration by Shaylyn Esposito

On the morning of June 10, 1898, Alice Lee marched into the all-male Anatomical Society meeting at Trinity College in Dublin and pulled out a measuring instrument. She then began to take stock of all 35 of the consenting society members’ heads. Lee ranked their skulls from largest to smallest to find that—lo and behold—some of the most well-regarded intellects in their field turned out to possess rather small, unremarkable skulls.

This posed a problem, since these anatomists believed that cranial capacity determined intelligence. There were two possibilities: Either these men weren’t as smart as they thought they were, or the size of their skulls had nothing to do with their intelligence.

“In fact,” Lee would write in her thesis, “a number of the most capable men fall into the last nine, and J. Kollman, one of the ablest living anthropologists, has absolutely the smallest skull capacity!”

Though only a doctoral student when she launched into her study of male and female intellectual difference, Lee’s study proved the most sophisticated criticism of cranium science to date, according to historian Cynthia Eagle Russet. Within a decade of publishing her findings in 1900, the field of craniology—and with it, the days of measuring skulls to interpret supposed biological human difference—would be no more. Ironically, Lee used craniologists’ own tools to cast doubt on the techniques they employed to argue their superiority to women, as well as to other races. In doing so, she waded into one of the most hotly debated social issues of her day: woman’s place in society.

In the 19th century, universities still largely excluded women (with a few notable exceptions). By the second half of the century, however, organized feminist campaigns increasingly advocated for women’s acceptance into higher education—and in many cases, succeeded. For many, women’s entry into public life threatened to disrupt the social order, or even, for men like anatomist and anthropologist Paul Broca, the natural order. Broca predicted that women would create “a perturbation in the evolution of the races, and hence it follows that the condition of women in society must be most carefully studied by the anthropologist.”

Of course, it wasn’t just anthropologists, but anatomists, physicians and biologists who would take up this “study.” The stakes were high. If science could reveal the inherent and natural inferiority of women, then their exclusion from public life generally (and higher education in particular) could be justified. As one of just a handful of women in higher education in Britain in the late 19th century, Lee recognized the social implications of such theories.

In 1876, Lee enrolled in Bedford College, the first all-women’s institution of higher learning in Britain. (Thought the college had been established in 1849, it was not granted university status until 1900.) Lee excelled at Bedford, becoming the first Bedford graduate to earn a bachelor’s degree in science in 1884, which she followed with a bachelor’s in arts the following year. In 1887, she became a student in the college’s first class in higher mathematics, the first of nine women matriculation entrants for that year.

After graduating, Lee stayed on to teach mathematics and physics and tutor students in Latin and Greek. But despite evidence that Bedford women were more than capable of handling higher education, the college came under attack from men at surrounding institutions. “Ladies’ colleges … are doing, no doubt, good work; but the work is not academic,” claimed eugenicist and biostatistician Karl Pearson in an op-ed published in 1892 in the London newspaper, Pall Mall Gazette, “as is sufficiently indicated when we say that a teacher at one of the latter has been known to lecture on mathematics, and on physics, and on classics at or about the same time.” He didn’t name Lee, but the implication was clear. Lee replied to him directly in a letter, defending her school and its 30-year academic tradition.

Pearson, rather than being outraged, was impressed by Lee’s response. Soon after, he hired her to come to London’s University College and assist him with calculations in his Biometric Laboratory, which applied statistical analysis to biology and included the study of craniometry. By 1895, she was attending his courses on statistics and had begun work on her own PhD. Against all odds, what began as a bellicose interaction had blossomed into a long working relationship.

Proponents of biometry claimed that precise measurements of the physical body led to understanding various types of human difference—particularly race, sex and class. Lee was particularly drawn to craniometry, the study of cranial capacity or brain size. “In the late 19th century, it seemed obvious that bigger skulls would contain bigger brains, and the bigger the brain the higher the intellectual function,” explains developmental psychologist Uta Frith, who has analyzed Lee’s work. She adds that “men’s brains were on average bigger than women’s brains, which seemed to confirm the belief that men were superior to women because they had higher cognitive capacity. This justified the existing difference in the social status of men and women.”

Alice Lee Tea Party

Alice Lee, seated third from the left, at a tea party with Karl Pearson and others in 1900.

University College London Special Collections Library

Methods for measuring cranial capacity to determine intelligence varied widely. Rather than attempting to measure the volume of the head of a living person, scientists generally relied on measuring the skulls of the dead. They would fill the skull with different fillers—things like sand, mercury, rice, mustard seed and lead shot—and then measure the volume of the filler. This method served up wildly imprecise results, as weight and volume changed depending on the substance used. Yet across the board, men of science came to the same conclusion: Women’s brains weighed less than men’s.

“Seeing that the average brain-weight of women is about five ounces less than that of men, on merely anatomical ground we should be prepared to expect a marked inferiority of intellectual power in the former,” wrote psychologist George J. Romanes in an 1887 article in Popular Science Monthly. He added that “we find that the inferiority displays itself most conspicuously in a comparative absence of originality, and this more especially in the higher levels on intellectual work.” Romanes’ assumptions about intellectual differences between the sexes were by no means unique. The same had been postulated by none other than Charles Darwin, who asserted in his 1896 book The Descent of Man that men attain “a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can women—whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands.”

Lee disagreed. For her dissertation, she took to applying statistical analysis to the relationship between cranial capacity and intelligence. “Lee used an indirect approach,” Frith says. “She devised a method to accurately calculate the volume of the skull from external measurements. This allowed her to assess the skull size of living people.” Lee’s formulas were based on the measurements of the greatest length of the skull, greatest breadth of the skull, the height measured from the auricular line, and the cephalic index (the ratio of the skull length to breadth). Fortunately for her, the men from the Anthropological Society—many of whom maintained the intellectual inferiority of women was based on skull size—presented a convenient group of test subjects.

After taking measurements at the Anthropological Society’s June 10 meeting, Lee found something surprising: The men’s skulls varied widely in size. She went on to measure and compare groups of men from University College, and women from Bedford College. The results within and between groups were equally varied. There was also overlap, as some of the men had smaller skulls than some of the women. “It would be impossible to assert any marked degree of correlation between the skull capacities of these individuals and the current appreciation of their intellectual capacities,” Lee writes in her 1889 thesis, which would later be published in the Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society.

For many graduate students, the term “thesis defense” is more of a turn of phrase. For Lee, it was an actuality. She fielded fierce attacks on her work from her thesis examiners, including mathematician J. Lamor, social scientist E. B. Hobson and anatomist Sir William Turner (whom Lee had ranked as having the eighth smallest head of the 35 members of the Anatomical Society). In her article “Alice in Eugenics Land: Feminism in the Scientific Careers of Alice Lee and Ethel Elderton,” historian Rosaleen Love details the attacks against Lee. Her examiners claimed Lee had merely built on Pearson’s work, and that she made no significant contribution. Prominent eugenicist Francis Galton was called in to review the reports, and was displeased to find that her work on male and female intelligence contradicted his own.

When he met with Lee to discuss the examiners’ criticism, he insisted that skull capacity did determine intelligence. Lee held firm. Ultimately, Pearson intervened, writing to Galton personally and vouching for the study’s quality and originality. But it would be two more years of debate before Lee was finally awarded her doctoral degree from the University of London.

Pearson, the man who once denigrated women’s education, highly valued his mentee, which Frith says, “is evident from the fact that he asked her to publish the work from her PhD in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.” The paper “Data for the problem of evolution in man. VI. – A first study of the correlation of the human skull” was published in 1900, credited to Dr. Alice Lee.

After dismantling the connection between gender and intellect, a logical route would have been to apply the same analysis to race. And race was indeed the next realm that Lee turned to—but her conclusions were not the same. Instead, she affirmed that through systematic measurement of skull size, scientists could indeed define distinct and separate racial groups, as craniometry contended. Lee and Cicely Fawcett, a lab assistant, based their findings on studies of the Naqada crania, which had been excavated from the town of Naqada, Egypt, by archaeologist Flinders Petrie and were believed to be a “New Race” of men.

Though Lee’s research was significant to both modern science and women’s rights, Lee was ultimately a eugenicist. Biometry and craniometry were the tools of eugenicists, and she surrounded herself with some of the most prominent eugenicists of her day. Though she wielded those tools to dispute differences between men and women, she also used them to uphold arguments for biological differences between races—perceived differences that were used to justify the British empire’s colonization of indigenous people. Unfortunately, while Lee was quick to point out the blind spots of those who sought to label her as inferior, she did not seem to recognize her own shortsightedness.

Today, she occupies the strange position of being on both the right and wrong sides of history. Her study did mark the beginning of the end for craniology. But Russett credits the final death knell to Franklin Mall, an anatomist at Johns Hopkins who built upon Lee’s work to include study of cranial convolutions and fissures and racial difference. In his 1909 paper, “On several anatomical characters of the human brain, said to vary according to race and sex, with special reference to weight of the frontal lobe,” Mall found no evidence that sex or race affected the brain. By the end of the decade, craniology was widely discredited.

While Lee rightly identified and challenged science’s biases when it came to gender, it would take fresh eyes and a new perspective to correct her assumptions about race.


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