Today is the birthday of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), the oldest substantial association founded to investigate in a radical empirical spirit the contested phenomena of animal magnetism and spiritualism. Inaugurated on 20th February 1882, the still existing SPR is now 134 years old. To historians of science and medicine, the Society’s history offers a veritable goldmine of opportunities to investigate some of the links between the sciences and the ‘occult’, which it might not be exaggerated to state have been written out of popular and disciplinary history.
Past presidents of the Society include the ‘father’ of American psychology, William James, and other eminent philosophers and scientists (some of them Nobel Laureates) such Henry Sidgwick, Balfour Stewart, Sir William Crookes, Sir Oliver Lodge, Charles Richet, Henri Bergson, the 3rd and 4th Barons Rayleigh (J. W. and R. J. Strutt), William McDougall, Camille Flammarion, Hans Driesch, C.D. Broad, Gardner Murphy, and F.J.M. Stratton.
Whereas the Wikipedia entry for the SPR is almost useless, in my view the still most accurate and balanced histories of the SPR are Alan Gauld’s The Founders of Psychical Research (London, 1986, Routledge & Kegan Paul), the unpublished Ph.D. thesis by J. P. Williams, The Making of Victorian Psychical Research: An Intellectual Elite’s Approach to the Spiritual World (University of Cambridge, 1984), and Trevor Hamilton’s Immortal Longings, a biography of one of the founders of the Society, Frederic W. H. Myers.
© Andreas Sommer
Update, 21 February 16: More informative birthday salutations can now be read on Carlos Alvarado’s blog.