In the summer of 1881, Frenchman Gustave Le Bon entered the forbidding Tatras Mountains of southern Poland. A bearded man of 40, Le Bon was a Parisian polymath with an appetite for science, anthropology, and psychology. His mission in Poland was to locate and study the society of Podhaleans living in the Tatras. Using the portable cephalometer he invented years prior, Le Bon hoped to record the skull measurements of these curly blonde-haired, blue-eyed mountain people. Convinced of the relationship between race and intellect, Le Bon suspected that only a superior breed could thrive in the inhospitable Tatras — a race that must have evolved beyond their Polish peasant neighbors. How else could they have built a society on terrain so dangerous that even Russian generals avoided sending troops through the peaks?
With his contraption of steel rulers and pressurized screws, Le Bon measured the cranial dimensions of 50 Podhalean men. According to his calculations, their heads were larger than both Polish peasants and Jews. The only population Le Bon determined had more brain mass than the Podhaleans were “elite Parisians,” among which Le Bon happened to count himself.
Today craniometry is considered pseudoscience. In 19th-century France, however, the measurement of skulls was seen as “so meticulous and apparently irrefutable,” that it “won high esteem as the jewel of nineteenth-century science,” explains Stephen Jay Gould in his 1980 essay “Women’s Brains.” As a result, Le Bon earned a reputation as the “father of modern social science.”