Happy Birthday, SPR!

hamiltonToday 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histories of the SPR are Alan Gauld’s The Founders of Psychical Research (London, 1986, Routledge & Kegan Paul), the unpublished Ph.D. thesis by  J. P. Williams,  The Making of Victorian Psychical Research: An Intellectual Elite’s Approach to the Spiritual World (University of Cambridge,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.

6 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, SPR!

  1. How curious or synchronic that this should pop up in my email, when last night I was looking at the same book cover late last – though I was backtracking from Leo Myers, wondering if he may have had an interest in altered states. I believe that Leo at least edited some of his father’s work for publication. My interest was through Leo Myers friendship with David Lindsay, author of A Voyage to Arcturus.

  2. Have you read John Cerullo’s book “Secularization of the Soul: Psychical Research in Modern Britain”? It seems to be rarely cited. Any opinions about it? It is usually forgotten but I believe it to be better than Gauld or Oppenheim’s histories.

    • Cerullo is certainly one of the more useful studies of the early SPR, and I think in some respect it’s slightly better than Oppenheim, though he appears to rely solely on published sources (you really need to get in the archives and try to draw upon personal correspondence, etc.). I think Gauld is much closer to the actual ‘pulse’ of the men and women who inaugurated the SPR.

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