The First Scientific Investigations into the Hand

The first strictly scientific investigations into the features of the hand began during the early part of the nineteenth century. By the 1830's, the first pioneering researches into the study of dermatoglyphics had been completed and other anatomical investigations into the medical significance of the hand were being conducted. In addition, more psychologically oriented studies of the hand, based both on the physiognomy of the hand and on its lineation, were beginning to attract the attention of the scientific establishment, such as the psycho-morphognomical studies being conducted by the German physician CG Carus. The interest in the study of dermatoglyphics, the study of the skin ridge patterns of both the fingers and the palm, was such that by the end of the nineteenth century, the medical and genetic significance of skin ridge patterns had been determined and the uniqueness and immutability of the fingerprint patterns themselves was being exploited by forensic scientists in police forces around the world. The application of scientific methods to the interpretation of the patterns of the hand had begun and the mists of superstition and charlatanism were beginning to lift from the handreader's art. Chiromancy was about to become chirology.

Anatomical Investigations

The first text written about the hand from an anatomical point of view was 'The Hand, its mechanism and vital endowments as evincing design' published in 1832 by the eminent surgeon Sir Charles Bell, in which he sought to demonstrate the perfection of the hand both as a tool and as an instrument as well as being the supreme sense organ available to human beings in its role in the sense of touch. Bell (1774-1842) was a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh and was a pioneering investigator into the anatomy of the nervous system. It was he that discovered there were more neural connections between the hand and the brain than between the brain and any other part of the body, a fact which has been widely used by many chirologists to explain how the lines of the hand reveal something of the consciousness of their owner.

At the end of the century F Wood Jones, professor of anatomy at Manchester University wrote an important work, 'The Principles of Anatomy as seen in the Hand', first published in 1920. His book describes the anatomy of the hand in considerable detail and many of his findings provide further anatomical and scientific evidence to support the significance of the hand as a valid means of studying human consciousness. Indeed, at one point he even goes so far as to say that the hand:

The lines do not correspond with the joints of the palm! ' an expresser of emotional states affords a study in itself, a study that the physician cannot afford to neglect'. Whilst Wood Jones had no particular interest in the chirological significance of the hand, his researches have quite accidently contributed to giving chirology a firm scientific basis. Indirectly, he has validated several chirological claims regarding the significance of the hands and have provided sufficient anatomical justifications of many of the traditional interpretations of the various features of the hands. This is true not only for the lines of the hand but also for the general morphological significance of the palm and the digits, in particular the thumb. These have been explored extensively in Beryl Hutchinson's book 'Your Life in Your Hands' (1967).

The Morphognomy of the Hand

The first psychological studies of the form of the hand were conducted by the German medic Carl Gustav Carus (1789-1869). Carus was a professor of surgery at the university of Dresden and was later also Royal Physician to the King of Saxony. His interest in the hand went further than that of Sir Charles Bell and Frederick Wood Jones, for he was most interested in discovering the psychological significance of the form of the body in general and of the hand in particular. He had an interest in both phrenology and physiognomy and was aware of the works of Lavatar and Gall and D'Arpentigny as pioneers in the field of what might now be termed ‘constitutional psychology’. He was, however, fairly critical of their work, particularly that of his contemporary, Casimir D'Arpentigny.

In 'Uber Grund und Bedeutung der Verschiedenen Formen der Hand in Verschiedenen Personen' of 1846, he formulates a system of handshape classification based more on the anatomical and physiological characteristics of the hand, providing a rather more comprehensive system of hand classification than D'Arpentigny’s system. Here, hands are divided into two main groups, the prehensile type, better adapted to grasping and holding, and the touch type, better adapted to feeling and sensing. The two basic hand types were then subdivided into the 'elementary' and 'motoric' and 'sensitive' and 'psychic' respectively, thus giving a classificatory system of four main types. Interestingly, the descriptions he gives of these handshape types corresponds neatly with the typology of the four elements, which can be correlated with his four handshape types as Earth, Air, Fire and Water respectively.

Carus also compared the hands of human beings with those of apes, and noticing that the fingers of human beings are proportionately more developed than those of apes, he suggested that the developed length of fingers in human beings correlates with the development of conscious thought. His basic approach therefore is to view the palm as representing the subconscious mind, with the fingers representing the conscious mind and thought, a distinction which in fact underpins the fourfold elemental system of handshape classification used by many handreaders today. Whilst the nomenclature of his system of handshape classification has not been widely adopted by many contemporary chirologists, with the exception of Charlotte Wolff, it nevertheless stands as the first fully scientific contribution to the study of chirognomy. Consequently, it is the first overt scientific acknowledgement that the shape of the hands reveal something of the psycho-emotional characteristics of their owner. Like Bell and Wood Jones, the work of Gustav Carus lends considerable scientific support to the study of the hand.

Whilst the work of Carus may be compared to that of D'Arpentigny in that both concerned themselves with the study of chirognomy and the classification of handshapes, no scientific work on the lines of the hand to parallel the work of Desbarolles was completed until the end of the nineteenth century. The important figure here was the French researcher Dr Noel Vaschide (1867-1904). Vaschide was assistant director of a laboratory for research into pathological

psychology in Paris and in his chirological researches he set out to establish the relationship between the lines of the hands and personality traits. He formulated the idea of the lines on the hand as being 'images motorique', formed by nervous and emotional impulses from the brain rather than by gross voluntary movements of the hands themselves. He also confirmed the age old observation that events in one's life leave a record in the lineal patterns of the hand. Vaschide died suddenly in 1904 from pneumonia and given his efforts to place the study of the lines of the hand on a secure scientific basis, it is perhaps most ironic that his death was exactly predicted by an ordinary gipsy palmist! Noel Vaschide showed the lines of the hand relate to personality

His early death meant that many of his chirological projects remained uncompleted. His only book 'Essai sur la Psychologie de la main' was published posthumously by his wife in 1909.

Dermatoglyphic Pioneers

Anatomical observations of the skin ridges of the palm had first been made as early as the 1680's in works by Nehemiah Grew, Bidloo and Marcello Malphigi, though these amounted to no more than an acknowledgement of the existence of these palmar patterns with a few observations on their uniqueness and variability. Grew (1641-1712) was an English doctor and anatomical researcher who presented a report to the Royal Society in 1684 describing the pores of the skin and the skin ridge patterns of the fingers. In 1685, Bidloo produced a book on anatomy which included a detailed drawing of a thumb and its dermatoglyphic pattern, and in 1686, the Italian anatomist Malphigi (1628-1694) commented on the skin ridges of the fingers and their variability in pattern. However, no systematic study of the significance of the skin ridge patterns was made until the early nineteenth century. The key figure in the development of dermatoglyphic studies was the Czech doctor and researcher Jan Purkinje.

Jan Purkinje 1797-1869 Purkinje (1787-1869) was working on a thesis about the human hand and the eye, which was published in 1823, after he had become professor of medicine at Breslau University. The thesis commented on the diversity of the fingerprint patterns and he proposed a classification of these patterns into nine types. As we would refer to them now, these were the arch, the tented arch, the ulna loop, the radial loop, the peacock's eye/compound, the spiral whorl, the elliptical whorl, the circular whorl, and the double loop or composite. Whilst this classification is perhaps a little too elaborate for practical purposes, especially the subdivision of whorls into three types,

it is nonetheless more thorough in its discriminations than the later systems of classification that have become more widely adopted, such as that proposed by Francis Galton. Purkinje was also the first researcher to suggest that skin ridge patterns might have both genetic and diagnostic importance. He was later to be proved right, as we shall see.

One other early dermatoglyphic researcher was the German physician Georg Von Meissner who published the results of his anatomical research into the skin ridge patterns in his 'Beitrage zur Anatomie und Physiologie der Hand' of 1853.

Medical Discoveries

However, it is not only the morphology and the lines of the hand which have been found to be significant indicators of disease conditions. Scientific research has also focused on the diagnostic significance of the nails. It has long been recognised that the nails of the hand are particularly important for the diagnosis of disease, ever since Hippocrates observed the correlation between respiratory disorders and the nail malformation which still bears his name today.

The significance of digital clubbing and the peculiar nail malformation associated with it achieved scientific respectability in modern times through the researches of JL Lovibond in the 1930's. Lovibond identified the angle at which the nail leaves the nail matrix as being the most salient feature in the diagnosis of the Hippocratic nail and thus properly established the relevant criteria by which this important sign could be recognised. Both Pardo-Castello in his work of 1936, and H Mangin in his 'Valeur Clinique des Ongles' of 1932, pioneered further developments in the study of the nails so that today it is now recognised as a vitally important part of clinical diagnosis. Aside from revealing the condition and functioning of the heart and lungs, the nails have also been found to give indications of the functioning of other internal organs, such as the kidneys and the liver, as well as providing diagnostic indications of diseases such as malaria and syphilis. More specifically, nail malformations have also been clearly associated with vitamin and mineral deficiencies and various other nutritional disorders.

The classic swelling of the Hippocratic Nails The Lovibond Angle - for diagnosing Hippocratic Nails

In more recent years, the importance of the nails has been reconfirmed and re-emphasised and many modern texts now urge the examination of the nails of the hand in all medical examinations until it becomes a matter of routine clinical procedure; for it has become obvious that the nails of the hands offer significant clues for the diagnosis of a whole host of diseases and disorders.

Further researches of a more strictly medical nature also demonstrated the enormous potential of the study of the hand for the diagnosis of disease. Texts such as 'The Hand as a Mirror of Systemic Disease' by the physician Theodore Berry illustrate the importance of many features of the hand in medical diagnosis. It is now widely accepted that the hand gives indications or manifest symptoms of many varied conditions, ranging from blood pressure and thyroid disorders through to liver and pancreatic problems and even heart disease and cancer. One medical practitioner from modern times who had a lifelong interest in palmistry was the American physician Eugene Scheimann from Chicago. His professional position enabled him to conduct a considerable amount of original chirological research over a forty year period, the results of which were published in his book 'A Doctor's guide to better health through palmistry', first published in 1969. Despite consistent ridicule from many of his colleagues, he persisted in his studies to provide a firm basis for his conviction that the study of the hand is " easy and inexpensive method by which the physician can help his or her patients achieve a healthy, happy and full life".

Dr Eugene Scheimann MD His researches included studies on obesity, anxiety and alcoholism and the second edition of the book also includes probably the first studies to be conducted on the hands of those with Immune Deficiency Disorders such as AIDS and HIV. Other themes of study include the male mid-life crisis, love and sexuality in the hand and even indications of criminality. This work is one of the few modern books on palmistry to have been written by a practising physician.

However, it is to the study of dermatoglyphics that we should turn if we are to uncover the main emphasis of scientific research into the hand this last one hundred years.  The discoveries that have been made regarding the fingerprints and their diagnostic potential is truly staggering.


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