Elizabeth McMahan (aka BettyMac) 1924 – 2009

September 3rd, 2009 Posted in People in Parapsychology

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I only just learned yesterday that Elizabeth McMahan, who I knew as BettyMac, died on August 17th. She was 85 years old. I can’t tell you how sad I am. I really liked BettyMac, I can’t imagine anyone who didn’t. Seriously, if anyone told me they didn’t like BettyMac I would have to forever wonder about that person. BettyMac was a scientist and a researcher at the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory from 1943 to 1954, and she was one of the few people alive who could tell me what life in the lab was like. As part of my research I must have read hundreds and hundreds of letters she wrote over the years, and they were so full of life, humor, intelligence and kindness. In person she was the same.

BettyMac published 9 papers during her time at the lab, and her specialties were psychokinesis and pure telepathy. I described her experiments with psychokinesis a little bit in the book, but I didn’t go into the experiment she devised in pure telepathy and I really should have. At one point J. B. Rhine realized that the earlier card tests actually hadn’t eliminated the possibility of clairvoyance and therefore didn’t provide a true test of pure telepathy.  The subject could have gotten the information from the cards and not the mind of the sender. BettyMac was the one who came up with an experiment to eliminate clairvoyance as far as possible and her paper about her work was published in 1946 (“An Experiment in Pure Telepathy,” Journal of Parapsychology).

My book was once a billion pages and everything had to be edited down, but here is the longer version of the section about BettyMac.

Betty McMahan was a small town girl. Born in the tiny farming community of Pino, North Carolina, her family’s main crop was sorghum cane, which was made into molasses. Betty was a tomboy. When she heard her aunts say that if a girl kissed her elbow she would turn into a boy, Betty almost dislocated her arm trying to perform the magical operation.

She was a freshman at Appalachian State Teachers College when her advisor gave her an ESP test. Betty didn’t do well on her test, and she thought the whole thing was ridiculous. She put ESP in the same category as witchcraft or demonology. But Betty respected her advisor, so she read Rhine’s book New Frontiers of the Mind. After that, she didn’t think ESP was witchcraft anymore. “I learned what science was,” Betty wrote. “He’s not trying to believe,” she discovered about Rhine, “he’s trying to see if there is something to this.”

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Betty made her own ESP cards out of thin cardboard and tested her roommate and everyone else she could talk into giving it a try. Soon she wanted to switch her major to psychology, but her college didn’t offer a degree in psychology. Her advisor told her to write J.B., who was almost a legend by this time, and Betty was thrilled when he not only wrote back, but sent her ESP cards and record sheets. His attentions were exciting and flattering to the then 18-year-old. He even invited her to visit the Lab. These were the war years, however, and there was little gas to be had for longer road trips. Luckily, a professor happened to be driving near Durham, and he offered to drop her off.

On March 9, 1943, Betty McMahan arrived at the lab. Betty Humphrey, who would become her closest friend, took her around. Two months later Betty was christened BettyMac, to distinguish her from Betty Humphrey, and she was working at the Parapsychology Laboratory as “the lowliest of research assistants.” In the fall she enrolled at Duke University. Work at the lab was demanding, and she didn’t get to take part on the college social life, but that was okay. The Lab became her social life and the Rhines became her family away from home.

(When I was writing about BettyMac’s younger years I always thought of Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird.)

However, BettyMac’s true love was bugs. Her heart was in zoology and entomology. She also admitted that about parapsychology, “I didn’t have the courage to stay in this.” I have since learned about the relentless hostility towards this field. “It was so hard,” she said. “There was no praise from the scientific world. You’re considered a dope.”

It wasn’t where she really wanted to be anyway. BettyMac told me about climbing a tree when she was a young girl. When she got to a place that was so high no one could see it she carved, “I shall be a great biologist.” Her dad found it much later when the tree died and they cut it down. BettyMac left Duke and the lab for the University of Hawaii where she got her Ph.D. in entomology (her undergraduate and master’s degrees in psychology were from Duke). She had an amazing career, and she even had a species of assassin bug named for her (Salyavata mcmahanae), as well as a beetle (Neophilotermes mcmahanae). In 1970, she was awarded a Tanner Award for outstanding teaching, and in 1989 the NC Entomological Society’s Award of Excellence for contributions to entomology.

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She gave me copies of this amazing series of books that she wrote about her life and work. They were full of the most charming illustrations, a couple of which I’ve reproduced here. The first one is of J. B. and Louisa Rhine taking some of the people at the lab and their children for a walk in the woods. In the second BettyMac is coming across a copperhead snake in the Duke forest.

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BettyMac adored the Rhines. About J. B. she said, “I didn’t know any scientist who was more of a scientist.” And about Louisa, she once wrote to one of their contributors, “She is such a joy to talk to that is is customary for younger members of the Lab, in particular, to go out to the house just to discuss with her some of the idea they have recently picked up from their psychological readings.”

I have an extraordinary series of letters between her and the famous physicist John Archibald Wheeler, where she strongly defends Rhine from some unfair comments from Wheeler. Wheeler was mostly gracious, if I remember correctly. I plan to reproduce their letters here in the future.

There’s a recent video of BettyMac giving a talk at the Rhine Research Center on their website (scroll down).  Oh, and in addition to all her work which is contained in Parapsychology Laboratory Archives at the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University, her papers are now at Duke in a collection titled the Elizabeth A. McMahan Papers, 1926-2008.

Sigh. I don’t know what else to say. Rest in peace BettyMac. You will be missed.

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  1. 6 Responses to “Elizabeth McMahan (aka BettyMac) 1924 – 2009”

  2. By Dan Trevarthen on Sep 15, 2009

    Stacy,

    Thank you for the words about BettyMac. I learned of her passing from this blog, but several months ago my mother, Rosie Rhine (Sally’s younger sister) forwarded BettyMac’s email address to me and we corresponded. When I was about 4 years old we lived in Durham and BettyMac would come to visit sometimes. She gave me a toy — a small rocket with an attached parachute. My parents told me to have BettyMac throw it up in the air so I could see the parachute open. “She has a good arm”, they said. I remember wondering what was wrong with the other arm, or what was so special about the good one. Then she threw the rocket up in the air, the parachute opened, the wind caught it and it landed on the roof of our apartment building. When I mentioned this memory to her a few months ago she wrote back to say that she remembered the look of despair on my face when I saw my toy land on the roof. She remembered that little incident of 45 years ago! I didn’t even think she would remember me.

    So, thank you for remembering her so kindly.
    — Dan Trevarthen

  3. By David Attwood on Oct 31, 2009

    Stacy,

    I only found out by accident that betty had died. I contacted Crolina Meadows when Betty hadn’t replied to my emauil.

    I had known Betty over many years dating back to the time when she was doing research into termites in Australia. She was a great friend of my father and also became a great friend on mine. I last saw Betty when she was on her last sea trip by freighter and my son treasures a photo taken of him and Betty aboard the ship when it docked in Melbourne.

    Regards,

    David Attwood

  4. By Alan MacCormack on Feb 17, 2012

    I just happened to be indulging in a bit of “I wonder whatever happened to” searching and came across this remembrance of Dr McMahan. I was a grad student at UNC in the later 70’s and worked as her entomology TA. She was a great model: committed to her research, staying outside of the department politics, holding students to the highest standards while simultaneously showing great care for them.
    We’re all the richer for having crossed paths with her.
    Alan MacCormack

  5. By Stacy Horn on Feb 18, 2012

    Oh, thanks for sharing that. I didn’t know her for very long, but I liked her instantly when I interviewed her, and everyone I talked to about her spoke of her with great affection.

  6. By Frank on Jun 7, 2014

    I had the good fortune to take a freshman seminar at UNC-CH from Dr. McMahan on “Insect Societies” in 1979. Our class of nine met weekly at her house (shortly after her mother died). What an amazing experience and a stellar person. We spent as much time discussing parapsychology and the human condition as we did termites, ants, wasps, and bees! We reconnected during her time at Carolina Meadows in the late ’90s (during my 16 years as a UNC employee). What a gracious, hospitable, and generous person. I trust that my fond memories will move her to a higher realm of her definition of Heaven.

  7. By Stacy Horn on Jun 8, 2014

    That was a really sweet post, thank you. I only knew her for a short time, but I really liked her, as did everyone as far as I could tell.

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