Cesare Lombroso

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



Cesare Lombroso was a famous man in the nineteenth century because he claimed to have discovered the cause of crime. His principal work, L’Uomo delinquente or The Criminal Man, was published in 1876. He wrote a good deal more including, in French, Le Crime, Causes et Remèdes.

Lombroso claimed in these books that in anatomical investigations the post mortem bodies of criminals revealed that criminals were physically different from normal people. He maintained that criminals have stigmata (Gr. Sign) and that these stigmata consist of abnormal dimensions of the skull and jaw. Lombroso even claimed that different criminals have different physical characteristics which he could discern. His book, the Criminal Man, achieved six editions. In time, and under the influence of his son-in-law Enrico Ferrero, Lombroso included the view that social factors cause a good deal of crime and that all criminality is not inborn.

The Lombrosian theory of atavism refers to atava, which is the Latin word for ancestor. Lombroso believed that criminals were throwbacks to Neanderthal men, i.e. our primitive ancestors. The Neander is a river in Germany. The word “tal” is German for valley. It has been anglicized into thal. The Germans called their coin taler or thaler and brought that word to this country where we pronounce it dollar.

In the Neandertal, archeologists found some bones of primitive men whose jaws protruded and whose foreheads receded a good deal more than is true of modern men. Lombroso thought he found the same features among criminals and hence considered them throwbacks to primitive Neanderthals.  

Lombroso was very influential in Latin America and other Latin speaking countries until Charles Goring, an English prison administrator, wrote The British Convict in 1913. This book showed that British convicts were no different than other Englishmen and that all of Lombroso's theories were untenable.

Cesare Lombroso was born in Verona, Italy on November 6, 1835. Son of a long line of rabbis, he studied medicine at the Universities of Padua, Vienna and Paris. He finally graduated from the University of Turin. He and Nina had five sons.

Lest we believe that he was an academic vagabond, we need to understand that it is usual for medical and other graduate students to study at several European universities. This is possible because European universities do not have our “credit” system and transfers are quite different. European universities are interested in final overall examinations, not “credit hours”.

No doubt you have noticed that so many of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century Jewish academics were the children of rabbis. The reason for this lies in Jewish history.  Because Jews were not admitted to European secular schools and colleges before the emancipation (Latin - to give out of hand or to liberate) ordered by Napoleon in the early 19th century, Jewish men who wanted to enter an educated profession had only one choice: rabbi. After the emancipation, this changed somewhat, although not altogether, and Jews could then and thereafter gain medical, legal and other educations  (Note that only men had these opportunities until the Jewish Betty Fredan wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1972 and revolutionized America).  Therefore Lombroso chose medicine and became a neuro-psychiatrist. Freud did the same.

During the Austro-Italian war of 1859, also known as the Second War for Italian Independence (the first war was the Austro-Sardinian War of 1849), Lombroso served as army physician. Thereafter he became professor of psychology and medical jurisprudence at the Universities of Pavia and later Turin. Here he conducted detailed anthropomorphic (Greek - structure of man) studies using cadavers to focus on the shape of the skull as an indicator of abnormality. These studies originated with the German physician Franz Joseph Gall, who had dealt in cranology, characterology and innate sociopathology. All of these studies are now discarded and seem useless to us. However, these were the foundations of all that is “scientific” today. Who is to say that our present efforts will not seem as foolish to our descendants as Gall and Lombroso seem to us today.

In any case, Lomroso continued his career as director of a “mental asylum” (nut house) in Pesaro.  There he rewrote his Criminal Man and in the 6th edition discusses the social reasons for crime together with some psychological insights. Undoubtedly he was influenced by his son-in-law Guglielmo Ferrero, with whom he published La donna delinquente, i.e. The Female Offender. This book is evidently of a sociological and psychological nature. Ferrero modified Lombroso’s thinking, so that in the end Lombroso became known as the father of scientific criminology. In addition to Lombroso and Ferraro, Garofalo and Ferri as well as Beccaria belong to the positivist or Italian School of Criminology, a group of scholars whose work is cited in every criminology book today.

Lombroso is also credited with being one of the first to work on a cure for pellagra, a skin disease caused by vitamin deficiency. He recognized that the disease was diet related but it was a Dr. Goldberger who finally described the disease in the early twentieth century after long research.

In sum, Lombroso was a great contributor to science, a great Jew and a credit to us all.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Man's Ascent to Reason (2003) & the forthcoming Football & American Identity.

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