Carlos S. Alvarado, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation

I would like to join Andreas Sommer in wishing the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) a happy 134th birthday. Writing in his Traité de Métapsychique (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1922, p. 37), famous physiologist Charles Richet stated that the “colossal work” of early SPR workers  provided the foundations for current psychical research.

The Society was founded in London on February 20, 1882. As Andreas wrote in the above-mentioned blog: “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.”

I have posted in another forum a short bibliography about the SPR, with emphasis on its early years. Below you will find parts of the “Objects of the Society,” as they appeared in the first volume of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (1882, 1, 3-6).

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“It has been widely felt that the present is an opportune time for making an organised and systematic attempt to investigate that large group of debatable phenomena designated by such terms as mesmeric, psychical, and Spiritualistic.”

“From the recorded testimony of many competent witnesses, past and present, including observations recently made by scientific men of eminence in various countries, there appears to be, amidst much illusion and deception, an important body of remarkable phenomena, which are prima facie inexplicable on any generally recognised hypothesis, and which, if incontestably established, would be of the highest possible value.”

“The task of examining such residual phenomena has often been undertaken by individual effort, but never hitherto by a scientific society organised on a sufficiently broad basis. As a preliminary step towards this end, a Conference, convened by Professor Barrett, was held in London, on January 6th, 1882, and a Society for Psychical Research was projected. The Society was definitely constituted on February 20th, 1882, and its Council, then appointed, have sketched out a programme of future work. The following subjects have been entrusted to special Committees:—”

“1. An examination of the nature and extent of any influence which may be exerted by one mind upon another, apart from any generally recognised mode of perception.”

“2. The study of hypnotism, and the forms of so-called mesmeric trance, with its alleged insensibility to pain; clairvoyance and other allied phenomena.”

“3. A critical revision of Reichenbach’s researches with certain organisations called “sensitive,” and an inquiry whether such organisations possess any power of perception beyond a highly exalted sensibility of the recognised sensory organs.”

“4. A careful investigation of any reports, resting on strong testimony, regarding apparitions at the moment of death or otherwise, or regarding disturbances in houses reputed to be haunted.”

“5. An inquiry into the various physical phenomena commonly called Spiritualistic; -with an attempt to discover their causes and general laws.”

“6. The collection and collation of existing materials bearing on the history of these subjects.”

“The aim of the Society will be to approach these various problems without prejudice or prepossession of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned inquiry which has enabled Science to solve so many problems, once not less obscure nor less hotly debated. The founders of this Society fully recognise the exceptional difficulties which surround this branch of research; but they nevertheless hope that by patient and systematic effort some results of permanent value may be attained.”

“The Council desire to conduct their investigations as far as possible through private channels; and they invite communications from any person, whether intending to join the Society or not, who may be disposed to favour them with a record of experiences, or with suggestions for inquiry or experiment. Such communications will be treated, if
desired, as private and confidential.”

“Letters relating to particular classes of phenomena should be addressed to the Hon. Secs, of the respective Committees, as follows:—”

“(1) Committee on Thought-reading; Hon. Sec., Professor W. F. Barrett, 18, Belgrave Square, Monkstown, Dublin.”

“(2) Committee on Mesmerism; Hon. Sec., Dr. Wyld, 12, Great Cumberland Place, London, W.”

“(3) Committee on Reichenbach’s Experiments; Hon.Sec.,Walter H. Coffin, Esq., Junior Athenaeum Club, London, W.”

“(4) Committee on Apparitions, Haunted Houses, &c.; Hon. Sec., Hensleigh Wedgwood, Esq., 31, Queen Anne Street, London, W.”

“(5) Committee on Physical Phenomena; Hon. Sec., Dr. C. Lockhart Robertson, Hamam Chambers, 76, Jermyn Street, S.W.”

“(6) Literary Committee; Hon. Sees., Edmund Gurney, Esq., 26, Montpelier Square, S.W.; Frederic W, H. Myers Esq., Leckampton, Cambridge.”

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Those of you who are not familiar with the work of the early SPR researchers should study the above mentioned bibliography, as well as articles in the Proceedings of the SPR (PSPR), such as the following:

Barrett, W.F., Gurney, E., & Myers, F.W.H. (1882). First report on thought-reading. PSPR, 1, 13-34.

Barrett, W.F., Keep, A.P.P., Massey, C.C., Wedgwood, H., Podmore, F.,& Pease, E.R. (1883). First report of the Committee on Haunted Houses. PSPR, 1, 101-115.

Gurney, E. (1884). The stages of hypnotism. PSPR, 2, 61-72.

Guthrie, M., & Birchall, J. (1883). Record of experiments in thought-transference. PSPR, 1, 263-283.

Hodgson, R. (1892). A record of observations of certain phenomena of trance. PSPR, 8, 1-167.

Myers, F.W.H. (1892). The subliminal consciousness: Chapter I. General characteristics of subliminal messages. PSPR, 7, 298-327.

Podmore, F. (1889). Phantasms of the dead from another point of view. PSPR, 6, 229-313.

Sidgwick, H., Johnson, A., Myers, F.W.H., Podmore, F., & Sidgwick, E.M. (1894). Report on the Census of Hallucinations. PSPR, 10, 25-422.

PSPR Vol. 1

See also the important books:

Gurney, E., Myers, F.W.H., & Podmore, F. (1886). Phantasms of the Living (2 vols.). London: Trübner.

Myers, F.W.H. (1903). Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (2 vols.) London: Longmans, Green.

Phantasms of the Living vol 2

There is, of course, more to SPR history than its early Nineteenth-century work. The contributions of the Society continued throughout the Twentieth century, and are still evident today.