Psychical Research and Parapsychlogy

It was inevitable that in the drive to develop ‘scientific’ approaches to the supernatural, the Spiritualists would face the prospect of formal academic research. From the obvious ‘debunkings’ of nineteenth century spiritualists came the desire for a formal disciplinary codification, on the boundaries between science and what could quickly become show business.

Psychical Research was first undertaken in 1882, with the foundation of the Society for Psychical Research (S.P.R.) led by Henry Sidgwick, Frederic Myers and Edmund Gurney, aiming to measure psychic phenomena  by scientific standards . Its stated aim was to conduct research into the veracity of such phenomena as telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and psychokinesis. Writing in 1980, C.E.M Hansel was adamant that ‘During the past 50 years…[psychic phenomena] have been demonstrated in the laboratory by means of rigorously controlled experiments.’ These experiments, however, were in doubt, because they ‘appear to have established…the reality of phenomena which conflict with well-established principles’.










The trial of ‘Dr.’ Henry Slade in 1876, a medium who claimed to have spirits write on slates, a trial which threw the popular spiritualist movement into doubt. Such investigations led to Psychical Research, but also cast doubt on the worth of the discipline.

An American S.P.R. was founded in 1885, and led to similar societies in Paris, Berlin, and as far afield as Warsaw. These faculties, together with myriad local associations, helped to spread an empirical attitude toward the psychical. Nevertheless, the public ridicule of spiritualism quickly tainted the name, and J.B. Rhine, one of the main American exponents of the discipline, renamed it as parapsychology in 1930, a term coined by German parapsychologist Max Dessoir in 1889 (parapsychologie). This indicates some of the growing tension between Rhine and the university, and after his retirement, Duke University, the first university to take the Psychical world seriously, ceased its Parapsychology studies.

The spillover of Spiritualism into the academy was surprising, yet inevitable. Much of its success can be attributed to wealthy Spiritualists, whose fortunes allowed them to be patrons of the movement. When professional scientists took an interest, it inevitably required more rigour, calling its claims into question.  Not only claiming to be ‘scientific’, it aimed to fulfil the specific aspirations of twentieth century women and men. Yet, not so surprisingly, the small toeholds it did establish were short-lived, lacking their intensity under stricter criteria.

Benjamin B. Wolman, Handbook of Parapsychology (Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1977), 11

C.E.M. Hansel, ESP and Parapsychology: A Critical Reevaluation (Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York, 1980), 3

Wolman, 17

Ibid., 20

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