Charlotte Wolff

Charlotte Wolff - Chirological Scientist

Charlotte Wolff in her youth, in Germany

Charlotte Wolff (1897-1986) is the one chirological researcher who has conducted complete studies on the hands of the mentally retarded and the mentally diseased. As a qualified physician and a psycho-analyst, she stands as one of the very few scientifically trained people ever to have seriously investigated the diagnostic significance of the hand. Moreover, she stands as one of the very few people to have conducted substantial empirical research into the patterns of the hands which, as a result, have given chirological diagnosis a sure and certain scientific basis.

Charlotte Wolff grew up in Danzig and studied medicine and philosophy at Konigsberg, Freiberg and Berlin universities, qualifying as a doctor after her probationary year in 1925. She set up in medical practice in Berlin and became interested in chirology in 1931 after a friend of hers had had her hands read by Julius Spier. She too had her hands read and was so impressed, she immediately enrolled on a course he was teaching to physicians. Her qualifications as a doctor enabled her to actively pursue her medical researches into the hand right from the start, and so began a twenty year period of single-handed research into the medical and psychological significance of the hand.

However, she was not to stay in Germany. She escaped Germany for France in 1933 after having been first harassed and then arrested by the Gestapo on account of her Jewish extraction. But this manifest misfortune was to turn out to be of utmost importance for her chirological career. As an exile in Paris, her medical qualifications were of no account; she was not allowed to practice medicine and was therefore forced to fall back on other skills in order to earn a living. She turned, almost reluctantly, back to chirology.

Through the good fortune of well connected friends, she was soon to meet Thomas Mann and Aldous Huxley and subsequently came to know many of those in the literary and artistic circles of the day. Huxley introduced her to the Surrealist clique in Paris and later invited her to stay in London, where he introduced her to the London literary set and promised her that he would write the preface for her first book. He had written to his publishers and suggested the idea of a book of handprints of well-known people with short interpretations of their hands. 'Studies in Handreading' was then published in 1936. The book itself gives only a brief exposition of Charlotte Wolff's chirological methodology; it is most noteworthy for the collection of famous handprints that it contains, including the prints of Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Ravel, TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, and Aldous Huxley himself. She also presents the prints of a comparative study of the hands of 'materialists' and 'spiritualists', to demonstrate how different orientations in life produce radically different chirological features.

Up to this point, her work was much more psychoanalytical than psychological. She had been undergoing Jungian analysis in Germany and Paris, though later became more impressed by the writings of Freud and the neo-Freudians, and her first book shows rather more psychoanalytical and palmistic influences than her later works. Her more serious research into the psychological significance of the hand began in Paris through the permission and influence of the eminent French psychiatrist Professor Henri Wallon, who enabled her to begin her research in the hospitals and clinics of Paris and so enable her to commence her studies into mental defectiveness and endocrinological imbalance as manifested in the hand.

When in London, Aldous Huxley introduced her to his brother Julian Huxley, the then secretary of the Royal Zoological Society, and he gave her permission to take the handprints of the apes at London Zoo for her comparative studies of the hands of apes and humans. She also got to know Dr William Stephenson of University College London and he was able to provide her with research facilities and access to mental colonies and hospitals for her to continue her researches into mental illness and the hand. And through all this time, she was working as a handreader to earn her daily living, though she rather tired of this and considered it only a secondary task to her main aim of presenting psychological chirology on a secure scientific basis. Her investigations into the abnormal psychology of the hand was founded on the basic axiom of psychologyas a science that it is the study of the abnormal that provides the best evidence for the nature of the normal.

She wrote two books to outline the scientific basis for her chirology, 'The Human Hand', published in 1942, and 'The Hand in Psychological Diagnosis' published in 1951. In these works, she only really acknowledges the writings of Carus and Vaschide as the important precedents to her approach to chirology, although she also refers to the neurological work of Sir Charles Bell and the clinical writings on nails of H Mangin and V Pardo-Castello. Her books are full of statistics and charts and her language can be a little technical and jargonistic at times, all attempts to persuade her audience of the scientific seriousness of her approach and her total disassociation with any kind of 'palmistry'. However, whilst she denounces palmistry, she has obviously read at least D'Arpentigny and Desbarolles and indeed, has listened to some of the basic palmistic claims; for her researches have validated a considerable number of the basic chirological assertions and assumptions.

For instance, she has statistically verified the association of each half of the palm with the 'conscious' and 'subconscious' mind and confirmed that the fingers are indeed related to both cognition and thought. She affirmed that the index finger and the thumb are indicative of self-consciousness and willpower respectively and that the Major Air line is indeed one of the most important indicators of mental functioning. She demonstrated how the lines of the hand are more reflections of mental and emotional activity rather than being caused by any mechanical means and she also established that various medical conditions do indeed manifest in the hand. Her investigations of gross endocrinological dysfunctions showed how the hand could reveal both physiological and psychological disorders.

Her other researches revealed that the hand can be successfully employed in the assessment of schizophrenics, manic depressives, imbeciles, mental defectives and congenital idiots and she reproduces many handprints in her texts to illustrate her findings. Her main chirological contributions therefore are to the fields of endocrinology, mental defectiveness and mental health and how these can be detected from the hand.

In addition to her two strictly scientific works, she also contributed several articles to the British Journal of Medical Psychology (1941 & 1944) and the Journal of Mental Science (1941), wherein she published the results of her researches into the hands of the mental defective, and the Proceedings of the Zoological Society (1937 & 1938), where she published the results of her comparative studies of the hands of apes.

A fourth book 'The Psychology of Gesture' published in 1945, was more of an ancilliary study to her main researches, studying the hands of both 'normal' people and those with mental illness to establish the significance of hand gestures. She nevertheless considered it an important study for giving further empirical support for the study of the hands as a means of gauging character and temperament, for it further demonstrated how the hands are so closely connected to internal emotional and psychological states.

In all, she has contributed considerably to the development of scientific chirology and has provided much in the way of sound argumentation for the physiological and psychological basis for the study of the hand. She views the hand as the visible part of the brain and considers that handreading could have a revolutionary impact on the whole study of psychology. She even goes so far as to say that she believes the hand to be a far more reliable means of gauging temperament, character, intelligence and mental functioning than any other psychological test available in her day, a fact that remains true even now.

'Studies in Handreading' (Chatto & Windus 1936)

Anthology of handprints and interpretations including the hands of some of the most eminent artists and literary figures of the early part of this century. Thin on explanation, but easily the most readable & interesting of all her books.

'The Human Hand' (Methuen 1942)

The definitive volume of Charlotte Wolff's approach to the study of the hand outlining her methodology and reasoning. Includes sections on the scientific basis of chirology, handshapes, fingers, nails, lines plus a selection of most interesting handprints of, amongst others, gorillas, apes and schizophrenics. A little technical in places but not unreadable and most certainly the best of all her books.

'A Psychology of Gesture' (Methuen 1945)

The significance of gestures of the hand as indicators of emotional and psychological states. She considers the physiology, the psychology and the pathology of gesture to demonstrate how gesture supports the validity of the study of the hand generally. Mostly based on her researches into the typical gestures used by depressives and those with other disorders.

'The Hand in Psychological Diagnosis' (Methuen 1951)

A further volume expanding on the ideas developed in 'The Human Hand'. Here she considers in greater depth the significance of endocrinological dysfunction, its psychological effects and chirological manifestations & outlines how and why the hand reflects temperament and personality. The bulk of the book details the results of her comparative researches into the hands of 'normal' and mentally defective children and the results of her reseacrch into the hands of the mentally ill. Very statistical with lots of charts and tables and often quite jargonistic and pedantic. The most 'scientific' of all her works.

'On the Way to Myself' (Methuen 1969)

Charlotte Wolff's autobiography, from which much of the above information about her life has been taken. A fascinating read, with a considerable section of the book dedicated to the period of her life when she was most actively involved in hand reading and chirological investigation.


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