History of The Society for Psychical Research

The Purpose

The period which saw the formation of the Society for Psychical Research was a time of intense intellectual ferment and uncertainty, with natural sciences making great strides in explaining the world in terms which challenged the traditional, religious views. At the same time, since the 1850s, there was a virtual explosion of extravagant paranormal claims and interest in them, in all strata of society throughout the Western world, related to the spread of the new religion of Spiritualism. While stories of apparitions, clairvoyant visions, precognitive dreams and other miraculous events have accompanied mankind since time immemorial, the new mediums (of whom there were many) were very influential in gaining credence for their claims of being able to contact the dead, and the issues raised by both science and spiritualism were the subject of fierce debate.

The SPR, the first learned society of its kind, was founded in London on 20 February 1882, following initial discussions between William Barrett and Edmund Dawson Rogers, and then a conference convened in London in January to discuss the viability of such a Society. Its stated purpose was to investigate “that large body of debatable phenomena designated by such terms as mesmeric, psychical and "spiritualistic”, and to do so “in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned enquiry which has enabled Science to solve so many problems” (quoted after Gauld, 1968, p. 137).

Working in that scientific spirit, the leaders of the SPR quickly created a methodological and administrative framework for investigating the phenomena, including the foundation of a scholarly journal for reporting and discussing psychical research worldwide. Owing to their efforts, “psychical research was becoming a science, with disciplined experimental methods and standardised methods of description, established by some of the finest minds of the day”. (Broughton, p. 64)

The Founders


The first President of the SPR was Henry Sidgwick, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Cambridge University, who had enormous standing and moral authority in the intellectual circles of the day. Apart from a prodigious amount of work, he contributed “the weight which his known intelligence and integrity gave to the serious study of the subject” (quoted from Broad’s obituary after Haynes, p. 176). His chief associates in the early stages were Frederic Myers, a classical scholar but also a man of lively and wide-ranging interests, and the brilliant Edmund Gurney, the main author of what is now the classic of psychical research, Phantasms of the Living.

Among the early members were also such prominent figures as the physicist William Barrett; the experimental physicist Lord Rayleigh; Arthur Balfour, philosopher and Prime Minister in the years 1902-1905; Gerald Balfour, classical scholar and philosopher; and Eleanor Sidgwick, one of the Balfour clan and wife of Henry Sidgwick, herself a mathematician and later Principal of Newnham College at Cambridge. These people, and their associates, were often connected through family ties, education, friendship and interests. Many of them inherited wealth, which gave them the time to pursue their studies, but with these advantages also came a sense of obligation to put them to good use for the benefit of mankind. Like many other great Victorians who applied themselves so patiently for little reward to cataloguing and sifting information about insects and other organisms collected from some exotic parts of the world, they sifted and corroborated reports of spontaneous cases, and learnt to spot fake mediums by sitting through many boring séances, in the pursuit of scientific explanations. With their scientific ideals and experience in investigating paranormal claims, they were fully aware of the tricks, the illusions, and the dangers of wishful thinking.

The “Heroic Age”

At the centre of the Society’s activities was the collection and investigation of data. This work was distributed across a number of committees, which, among other things, investigated thought-reading (now telepathy – a term coined by Myers), mesmerism (hypnotism) and clairvoyance, physical phenomena and apparitions/haunted houses. However, it was the Literary Committee, charged with collecting historical and current evidence, which produced what undoubtedly was the first landmark in psychical research. The work of this committee resulted in Phantasms of the Living, written mainly by Edmund Gurney, together with Frederic Myers and Frank Podmore. Published in 1886, it contained over 700 carefully analysed cases, presented within the telepathic theory of crisis apparitions (interpreting reports of communications from people dying or in life-threatening situations as telepathically generated hallucinations). In the words of Alan Gauld, “To pass from even the ablest of previous works to Phantasms of the Living is like passing from a mediaeval bestiary or herbal to Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae.” (Gauld, 1968, p.164)

This was followed by another landmark project, the Census of Hallucinations, a survey on a very considerable scale which set out to establish the probability of reports of crisis apparitions being due to chance coincidence; the report on this work, prepared largely by Eleanor Sidgwick, ruled out this posibility.

Much of the early work involved investigating, exposing and in some cases duplicating fake phenomena. Richard Hodgson distinguished himself in that area; one of the most interesting exposures of that period was carried out by Hodgson with his friend, S. J. Davey. Originating the “fake séance” technique for educating the public (including SPR members), Davey gave sittings under an assumed name, duplicating the slate-writing phenomena produced by a medium named Eglinton, and then proceeded to point out to the sitters the manner in which they had been deceived.

However, there were a number of mediums, both physical and mental, who seem to have produced striking phenomena and veridical information under conditions which can be described as experimental. The feats of D.D. Home, the most famous physical medium of them all, preceded the formation of the SPR, but the Society published a comprehensive account of the experiments carried out with him by William Crookes in 1871-4. Early on in the work of the SPR, its researchers came across a small number of mental mediums regarded as trustworthy, who were prepared to work with the Society under the required conditions, and did so over many years. The most famous of these was Mrs Leonora Piper, an American whose remarkable powers were brought to the attention of the SPR by William James.

The early members of the SPR cooperated closely with scientists in other countries. In America, under the leadership of William James, the psychologist, a similar society was formed and flourished, with close collaboration between psychical researchers on the two sides of the Atlantic. Leading French psychotherapists were Corresponding Members of the Society, and there was a particularly close relationship with Charles Richet, professor of physiology at the University of Paris and a future Nobel Prize winner. He anticipated much of the methodology later used by J.B. Rhine in the USA - conducting experiments using sealed targets, exploring the use of statistics in assessing experiments, and drawing attention to the unpredictability of psi. Much experimental work was also done in this country, using statistically assessable material or other targets for thought-transference, but the main development of such techniques belongs to a later day.

1903 saw the posthumous publication of Myers' Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death, which constituted a vast synthesis of his thinking and presented his theory of the subliminal self.  In spite of the gaps and ambiguities (the work was prepared for publication after Myers' death by two other SPR members, Alice Johnson, the SPR Secretary, and Richard Hodgson, lawyer and philosopher), it remains a classic of psychical research literature.

Edmund Gurney died in 1888, Henry Sidgwick in 1900, and Frederic Myers in 1901. With their deaths, the “Heroic Age”, as it has been called by John Beloff, came to an end. However, one very interesting development followed the deaths of the early founders. Shortly after Myers’s death, there began a series of automatic writings, produced independently by a number of mediums not in communication with each other, with interlocking messages full of classical allusions. These would have been beyond the knowledge of the mediums involved, and seemed to indicate the presence of an organising intelligence – that of the deceased SPR founders. The phenomenon is known as 'cross-correspondences', and the significance of the writings (which continued to be produced over a period of some 30 years) is still providing material for analysis and debate.

The Legacy

The work of the early researchers established the main methodological principles and the main areas of research. The study of mediumship continued, providing much information on aspects of human personality and altered states of consciousness, as well as perfecting investigative techniques. Field investigations were carried out, and further collections, analyses and surveys of spontaneous phenomena were published. Following the general trend discerned also in psychology, towards an experimental, more biological, approach, experimental methods kept undergoing refinements and improvements. Much important pioneering work on free-response and quantitative experiments was done in the 1920s and 1930s, by researchers such as George Tyrrell. Mathematician and physicist by education, he explored a variety of methods for inducing altered states of consciousness, techniques to differentiate between telepathy and clairvoyance, and made attempts to automate the randomisation of targets. The establishment of J.B. Rhine’s Parapsychology Laboratory in the USA in the 1930s was a spur to collaborative work and studies designed to replicate Rhine's results using his methods (see Overview). Both J.B. Rhine and his wife Louisa served as Presidents of the SPR in 1980. In fact, the work of the SPR has, over the years, attracted a remarkable roll-call of great names of learning, both as members and Presidents.

As the knowledge about aspects of psychical research and related areas expanded, so did the function of the SPR, from a mainly investigative to an educational body. Even in its earliest days the Society began creating a psychical research library and an archive of original documents, now housed both at its offices in London and at Cambridge University Library, which are continuously maintained and updated. The Society’s own publications, its Journal and occasional Proceedings, have been appearing since the 1880s. In them one can find a wealth of wide-ranging material relating to investigations and experiments past and present, as well as theoretical studies and papers discussing the relationship between psychical research and fields such as psychology, philosophy, physics, medicine, evolutionary biology, social sciences. One of the Society’s major recent projects was to have all its publications and the classics of psychical research made available online, together with an Abstracts Catalogue, in which related abstracts are arranged in themed collections.

Today, apart from its educational activities, the SPR continues to promote and support the main areas of psychical research: spontaneous phenomena, mediumship, and experimental work. Now that parapsychology has become an academic subject, with postgraduate courses offered at a number of universities, many of these projects are carried out as part of university research. However, the function of the Society is still very much to bring together independent individuals with many different approaches and views but sharing a passion for the subject, so that findings and ideas can be shared, evaluated and disseminated (see Research).

 Zofia Weaver

References and Bibliography

Beloff, J. (1993) Parapsychology: A Concise History. London: The Athlone Press.

Broughton, R. (1992) Parapsychology: The Controversial Science. London: Rider.

Gauld, A. (1968) The Founders of Psychical Research. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Haynes, Renée (1982) The Society for Psychical Research 1882-1982: A History. London: MacDonald & Co.

Salter, W.H. (1948) The Society for Psychical Research: An Outline of its History. SPR Booklet.