Charles Richet: A Nobel Prize Winning Scientist's Exploration of Psychic Phenomena, by Carlos S. Alvarado

Dr. Carlos S. Alvarado, Research Fellow at the Parapsychology Foundation, is well-known in the psychical research community for his historical articles. However, outsiders would presumably have appreciated a brief section about the author. That said, the blurbs describe Alvarado as:

“a consummate scholar, researcher and historian …”
Lisette Coly, President, Parapsychology Foundation

“… our foremost contemporary historian of parapsychology”
Etzel Cardeña, Thorsen Professor of Psychology at Lund University, Sweden

Charles Richet: A Nobel Prize Winning Scientist’s Exploration of Psychic Phenomena is a rather small book, about half of its 198 pages are devoted to Alvarado’s previously published articles about Richet and the rest to Appendixes (which include bibliographies), References, Notes, and an Index. The book is a great starting point for anyone curious about Richet’s thoughts about psychic phenomena, psychical research, and mediums. That said, the entry about Richet that Alvarado contributed to the Psi Encyclopedia is equally readable. By all accounts Richet was a great man with many interests. Cardeña included him in his list of Eminent People Interested in Psi.

There is no need for me to list Richet’s many accomplishments. He was born in 1850, became Professor of Physiology in 1887, and died in 1935. J.B. Rhine’s Extra-Sensory Perception was first published in 1934 and focus in psychical research started to shift away from mediums and spontaneous cases. Richet however sat with many of the great mediums, including with Eusapia Palladino, and pondered on spontaneous cases. Alvarado has translated a section from Richet’s autobiography, in which he recalls that “… in 1875, we looked with scorn and indignation at all that was written about somnambulism” (p. 32). However, Richet saw a demonstration of somnambulism in the 1870s and was immediately fascinated. Richet, sixteen years old, managed to put a girl “to sleep … After a few passes she closed her eyes, and was unable to open them” (p. 30). Both Richet and his sister thought it best not to tell their parents about this experiment.

A few years later Richet continued to experiment with hypnosis and while working at Beaujon Hospital he “could do many experiments that showed me the absolute reality of induced somnambulism” (p. 31). Later he became an intern at Jean-Martin Charcot’s Salpêtrière and continued to experiment. He found that he could induce personality changes in people once they had been hypnotized. Richet’s experiences with hypnosis would later influence his thinking about entranced mediums. Richet regarded characters such as, for example, Dr Phinuit, who spoke through Leonora Piper, as products of the medium’s subconscious mind. Some have claimed that Richet eventually did accept survival after bodily death as the explanation for some phenomena. According to Alvarado this is incorrect, Richet did however become more open to the possibility. Science was his religion and survival after bodily death is difficult to prove.

Although Richet did not mention it in his autobiography he probably heard or participated in discussions about psychic phenomena at Salpêtrière. Alvarado highlights some other omissions. In his autobiography Richet attributed his long interest in psychical research to a visit from Alexander Aksakoff. He later invited Richet to attend séances with Palladino. Later Richet came in contact with prominent members of the SPR, including Henry and Eleanor Sidgwick, F. W. H. Myers, Edmund Gurney, and Oliver Lodge. My understanding is that they had mutual respect for their different views.

Richet thought that psychic phenomena belonged to psychology or physiology, and instead of psychical research he used and promoted the term métapsychique (metapsychics). In his autobiography Richet exaggerated when he wrote “the term has had rapid acceptance, which I find extraordinary, and is commonly used and understood” (p. 36). The term was, in fact, mainly used in France. When Richet’s Traité de Métapsychique was translated, in 1923, his term was replaced, the English translation is titled Thirty Years of Psychical Research. Richet considered this to be a serious error, but besides that thought the translation was excellent (Richet, ca 1929, p. 25). However, metapsychics is easy to confuse with metaphysics which has a very different meaning. Alvarado devotes a chapter to the book: “Modern readers will find it of value for several reasons. The book is a reference work presenting many summaries of studies, bibliographical sources, and evidential claims about psychic phenomena …” (p. 82).

I believe that Alvarado has tried to be fair in his writings. He does point out a few inconsistencies between Richet’s writings and the known facts (which I admit makes me suspect there are more). Alvarado does not delve into any controversies, but provides sources for the curious reader. One of the more famous concern Richet’s observations of the materialized Bien Boa during séances with Marthe Béraud, better known as Eva C. Fortunately, Benjamin Steigmann has written an extensive article about Eva C for the Psi Encyclopedia.

In a blurb for the book the historian Andreas Sommer notes that “Richet still awaits a biographer doing justice to all his multi-faceted and seemingly contradictory interests and activities” and Ebon (1976) once wrote:

Richet, like many another scientist, could display flaws of judgement, human frailty, stubbornness and anger … Richet was many-sided, complex, opinionated, arrogant, hard-working and, at times, dogmatic to the point of contempt for the ideas of others. If not a genius, he certainly had elements of genius (p. 25).

Although Alvarado’s purpose was “… not to present a systematic study of Richet’s psychic interests, but to make more accessible my previously published essays …” (p. xvii) he has produced a readable book, which should be regarded as an introduction to further reading. The included bibliographies will surely be appreciated.

Ebon, M. (1976). The three faces of Charles Richet. Parapsychology Review, 7(6), 25-28.
Richet, C. (ca 1929). Our Sixth Sense. London: Rider.