Heady demonstration of science from 1800s

A heady display of science from the 1800s

History: A museum volunteer teaches visitors about phrenology, the method of reading a person's personality in the bumps on his or her head.

Ellicott City

July 29, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Richard D'Ambrisi put his white-gloved fingers on the bone above Yuriy Sapronov's eye and, after a few moments, declared the North Potomac resident should be good at mathematics.

"You are absolutely correct," Sapronov said, looking with surprise at D'Ambrisi, who was wearing an 1850s-style vest, floppy bow tie and tall hat.

D'Ambrisi, 53, of Cockeysville received mostly affirmative responses as he examined visitors' skulls during his living-history demonstration at the B&O Railroad Station Museum in Ellicott City, where he portrayed a practitioner of phrenology, the once-popular science of reading a person's personality in the bumps on his or her head.

But being right, he said, is secondary to being informative in his presentations every other week at the museum. A volunteer for a decade, D'Ambrisi has developed several exhibits over the past five years, including ones on baseball in the 1860s, apothecary activities and 19th-century medicine and optical devices used for entertainment 150 years ago.

"I've taken a civilian perspective on life in the mid-1800s in Ellicott Mills," he said, referring to Ellicott City's former name. "I felt there was enough military activity [represented] that I wanted to do something a little different."

"It complements everything we do," said Lisa Mason-Chaney, museum director. "It's kind of a different spoke in the wheel. ... A lot of the stuff he does, people just don't know about it and don't know its importance at the time."

She added, "He goes out and does a ton of research." He has started researching topics from World War II to prepare for the museum's new focus on that theme next year.

D'Ambrisi started to explore living history in the 1990s, although he has always been a history buff. He decided to research medical topics in part because of his background in pharmaceutical sales. He is a product manager for Maryland Specialty Wire in Cockeysville, a manufacturer of wire for medical applications.

Through his research at libraries and on the Internet, he became intrigued by phrenology. "In the time I portray, it was considered a science," he said.

Each area of the brain was thought to control an area of personality. If a spot was heavily developed, phrenologists believed, it would cause the skull to bulge. If a trait was not prominent, the skull would dip at that location.

After the practice traveled from Austria to England to the United States, phrenologists opened shops and gave extensive readings to customers, he said. Many would rate each area on a 6-point scale and offer recommendations about careers and marriage partners.

Phrenology was most popular in the 1850s and 1860s, but fell out of favor after scientific tests showed the results could not be reliably reproduced, D'Ambrisi said. It eventually became grouped with entertainment such as fortune telling and palmistry.

D'Ambrisi combines fun and history as he discusses phrenology at the museum. If people are willing, he offers to check one or two areas on their heads to show how it was done.

The area at the base of the skull behind the ear, for example, is supposed to demonstrate amativeness, or romantic love. A spot along the eyebrow is thought to denote calculation, or mathematical ability.

D'Ambrisi thought that area was raised on Sapronov, who then said he is a computer programmer.

When D'Ambrisi said this indicated a job with the railroad would be good (had they been living in the mid-1800s), Sapronov replied, "I would have loved to do that."

"I love history," said Sapronov, who was visiting Ellicott City with his wife, daughter and grandson for the day. "It always amazes me that people find the time to re-create these things. It's very important."

It is also a good way to engage visitors who want to know more about one aspect of life more than a century and a half ago. "When their interest is piqued, they get into it," D'Ambrisi said.

D'Ambrisi's interest has remained strong for years, in part because he continues to research new topics. His three sons, who grew up in Ellicott City with their mother, used to accompany him, and the youngest, Jeffrey, 19, still helps out sometimes.

"It's a stress reliever for me," D'Ambrisi said. "It's an outlet."

And, he said, he likes to do research and share it with others.

"The reaction from the public ... that's rewarding," he said.

The B&O Railroad Station Museum, at Main Street and Maryland Avenue in Ellicott City, is open Friday through Monday. Information: 410-461-1944, or www.ecbo.org.

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