George R. Price

Sally Rhine Feather mentioned this book to me, The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness by Oren Harman.

George Price was a scientist who wrote an article in 1955 for Science attacking parapsychology and accusing Rhine and others of cheating (Science and the Supernatural, August 26, 1955). He then got into a nasty exchange with Rhine, and Price was so particularly, shockingly hostile that a book with “kindness” in the title along with his name was so jarring it got my attention. I read the first few pages and was immediately sucked in.

I skipped to the section about Rhine and got even more sucked in. There are just so many interesting revelations. It turns out that Price went after Rhine because he thought the purpose of Rhine’s experiments were to promote Rhine’s Christian beliefs. But Rhine was not religious, he was something between agnostic and atheist. Price apologized years later, both publicly in a letter to the editor in Science (January 28, 1972) and in a letter to Rhine. They started writing each other again, and it was friendly at first, but apparently Price lost it again. He had since converted to religion and was now attacking Rhine for his lack of belief.
Price had actually grown up believing in ESP and even wrote Rhine when he was an instructor at Harvard in the 1940’s. But at some point he decided instead that Rhine was cheating. Also, Price’s mother regularly communicated with the dead (she believed) and it looks like Price wasn’t any kinder to her then he was with Rhine. After the Science article came out in 1955, at least one New York journalist got a letter from her saying that she was psychic and knew her son was wrong. (That wasn’t in the book, that I got from the Parapsychology Lab archives at Duke.)

Price never comes off like a very nice guy, but after his religious conversion he dedicated his life to helping the homeless and he killed himself by slashing his throat with a pair of nail scissors on January 6, 1975, because he couldn’t help the homeless enough! Christ. Nail scissors are tiny. The only people at his funeral were five homeless men who he’d been kind to.
Due to various deadlines I haven’t been able to get to reading the entire book, but I wanted to mention it because it’s so well written and looks like such an incredible story.

Price’s article caused a flurry of responses for a while. The following is from a letter from Rhine to his daughter Sally, when she asked him about the scientific method. “I have always thought of scientific method as simply the best developed way mankind has found as yet of finding the most satisfactory answer to questions about nature …” I also have letters between Price and Upton Sinclair, discussing Mental Radio, Sinclair’s book about his wife’s telepathy experiments. Price is pompous, Sinclair is patient.

Quotes about ESP

In 1941, the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory prepared a report titled, Notes and Comments on Progress in ESP Research. The Lab gathered quotes about ESP from people in a variety of fields, and I’ve pulled out a small sample.

From Harvard psychologist and professor Gordon W. Allport, who was, according to Wikipedia, “one of the first psychologists to focus on the study of the personality, and is often referred to as one of the founding figures of personality psychology.”

Allport wrote: “I would like to say that I cannot imagine a better tempered, better balanced, more satisfactory handling of the problem at its present stage of development. I congratulate you and your colleagues on the excellent presentation. It seems to me a model of scientific reporting, even though the subject itself is an open one.”

Allport was referring to the 1940 book, Extra-Sensory Perception After Sixty Years, by J. G. Pratt, J. B. Rhine, Burke M. Smith, Charles E. Stuart and Joseph A. Greenwood.

From the journalist Will Irwin: “That monotonous card calling at Duke may be more important to the future of the race the all the political and social experiments which mark this confused age.”

I like this quote because he comes right out and calls the cards monotonous. Irwin was well known at the time.  Among other things, he published a series about journalism titled “The American Newspaper.” He concluded the series by describing American newspapers as “wonderfully able, wonderfully efficient, and wonderfully powerful: with real faults.”

He also spent ten weeks traveling the country researching fraudulent mediums for Collier’s Weekly. The piece was called The Medium Game. I have to get a hold of this. I’d be curious to read who he investigated. In 1909, he wrote about the medium Eusapia Paladino for The New York Times. “While a little taint of fraud hung over one or two parts of the performance, she did one thing that sent the reporters away believing, if not in spirits, at least in a mysterious personal force which contradicts all know laws of matter.”

“Directly under the full light of sixteen-candle-power electric lamp, with two men holding her feet and knees, and with her hands in plain view a foot above the table, Signora Paladina caused it to rise again and again—three times, with all the feet clear of the floor. In all of these levitations the spectators on the edge of the circle could look under the table and see her feet and knees quiet and absolutely controlled.”

This was a fun one. It’s from Dr. William Moulton Marston.

“These psychic discoveries by reputable scientists have opened up, literally, a new world.”

It’s fun because along with being “credited as the creator of the systolic blood pressure test used in an attempt to detect deception, which became one component of the modern polygraph,” (according to Wikipedia) he is the creator of Wonder Woman! I’m not very familiar with comic books, but I’m reading that apparently later on, Marston added telepathy as one of Wonder Woman’s abilities.

The scientists at the Parapsychology Laboratory however, only knew Marston as a psychologist.

BettyMac Takes on John Archibald Wheeler

In 1986, Dr. Elizabeth A. McMahan, a former Duke Parapsychology Lab scientist, confronted the preeminent physicist John Archibald Wheeler, motivated in part by a wrong Wheeler had done J. B. Rhine six years before. Dr. McMahan, aka BettyMac, gives the back story and reprints their correspondence in her memoir Warming Both Hands Before the Fire of Life, Vol. III, and I’m reprinting that section here.

In my opinion, Wheeler was kind in his replies, and just a little condescending, but at least he wasn’t hostile, and given where he was coming from that may have been the best he could summon. Everything that follows, except for the headlines, was written by Dr. McMahan.

Wheeler Accuses J. B. Rhine of Cheating

In 1979 the AAAS held its annual meeting in Houston. On January 8th one of the panel sessions was on the topic “Physics and Consciousness.” Parapsychologists were among the speakers, as was John A. Wheeler, a top theoretical physicist then at the University of Texas, who had consistently opposed parapsychological research. In his 1998 autobiography, Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam, Wheeler describes his “surprise and dismay” when he discovered before the talk that at the AAAS meeting he would have to “share the podium with several parapsychologists.” He gave his own paper on the quantum theory of measurement and then distributed to the press two appendices that he had prepared to “escape guilt by association.” One was called “Drive the Pseudos Out of the Workshop of Science” and the other was “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Smoke.”

That’s about all he reports in this 1998 book about that AAAS meeting besides saying that he later wrote to William Carey, the AAAS president, trying to establish a panel “to decide whether it was time to eliminate parapsychology from the organization” and the fact that his appendices, plus the letter to Carey, “reached a large audience when they appeared in the New York Review of Books in May, 1979.” He failed to mention a crucial part of that AAAS panel discussion, a part that put him, to my mind, in a very bad light. When he was asked by his audience to be more specific about his criticisms of parapsychology, Wheeler gave an account of an experiment with rats carried out 50 years earlier for Dr. McDougall by a research assistant at Duke who, Wheeler said, had manipulated the experimental conditions to produced false results. He said that another observer, T. S. (by 1979, a well-known biologist) had disclosed this deception to Dr. McDougall, and the work was never published. Wheeler announced that the assistant who had carried out the deceptive experiment had been J. B. Rhine, the founder of Parapsychology. The implication was clear. The accusation was a bolt from the blue, and no one at that AAAS meeting challenged the scurrilous statement.

Accusation Proven Untrue, Wheeler Apologizes

Dr. Rhine was in his 83rd year at that time; he had not attended the AAAS meeting. When returning attendees reported Wheeler’s diatribe, he must not have been terribly shocked. He had long since learned that scientists, even lauded ones, are not immune to prejudice and error, but he knew he had to answer such calumny, and he procured a transcription of the AAAS seminar tape. Meanwhile the “witness” to the supposed deception in the rat experiment, Dr. T. S., wrote directly to Wheeler, entirely rejecting the charges he had made. On April 12th, 1979, Wheeler wrote an apology to Dr. Rhine, and letters from both Wheeler and Rhine were published in the July 13, 1979 issue of Science. Wheeler’s retraction letter to Science was, I thought, grudging and meager, and Dr. Rhine’s letter had the burden of explaining what the entire matter was about. He said that he was glad to know from the AAAS that Wheeler’s “statement of retraction will be sent to all those who have already purchased tapes containing a record of [his] charge against me, and further that the Wheeler charge will be deleted from tapes and records of the symposium being distributed by the AAAS in the future.”

The Correspondence

I was outraged at Wheeler’s behavior and carried the anger for a long time. But one day in 1986, six years after Dr. Rhine’s death, I read in the July issue of The American Scientist an article by Wheeler. It was his reprinted “Hermann Weyl Centenary Address.” He had summarized Weyl’s contributions to science, and he expressed his admiration for Weyl’s emphasis on “the unity of knowledge” and his fascination with the great mysteries that science still seeks to clarify. I started the article grudgingly, for I hadn’t forgotten Wheeler’s 1979 AAAS performance, but I soon was struck by the writing and the subject matter. When I finished, I decided to write to Wheeler (who naturally didn’t know me from Adam). The Weyl article made me have a more kindly feeling toward him, and it occurred to me that a scientist so honored in his field would have to be a better man than the one the AAAS meeting had stamped Wheeler as being. Surely that episode had seared his soul with shame. I felt real sympathy for one who maybe needed a second chance.

This is the letter I wrote to Wheeler on July 17, 1986, on Department of Biology stationery, and sent to his University of Texas address.

Dear Professor Wheeler:

I have just read your Hermann Weyl Centenary Address reprinted in the latest American Scientist. It makes my heart beat fast at the mysteries it expounds and the “unity of knowledge” it contemplates. Your fascination with these greatest of mysteries is obvious, showing the depth of your perception and intellect. But in my admiration I find myself even more sadly perplexed regarding your bitter scorn of Professor J. B. Rhine’s lifelong commitment to the same mysteries. He came to them through his background of Biology and Psychology, you through Mathematics and Physics, both using the methods of science. His, of course, was the more difficult way for it was cluttered with credulous and often fraudulent believers impatient with his insistence on experimentation. He is my hero, as Weyl is yours. Both had that passion to understand. There have been and will be other contributors to the eventual clarification of these soul-stirring mysteries that touch our hearts more deeply than the orthodox religions can do. To all of you I feel deep gratitude for your magnificent obsession.

Sincerely yours,
Elizabeth A. McMahan
Professor of Biology

In a couple of weeks I had a reply, handwritten on a Swiss post card and mailed from his home in Maine at High Island:

“Thank you for your thoughtful letter of July 17 and for telling me that the great mysteries stir you too. Bravo! And as for Rhine: ‘scorn,’ no; ‘bitter scorn,’ still less; only sadness that he was so misled, and misled so many others. As I wrote about ESP, ‘Where there’s smoke, there’s smoke.’

Warm regards from a former UNC [professor] to a present one!
John Wheeler”


He seemed more approachable than I had feared, but I couldn’t let the matter rest there. On August 5th I wrote him again, and this time to his Maine address.

Dear Professor Wheeler:

Forgive me if I respond immediately to your very nice card of July 30. I am glad indeed that I was wrong in attributing to you bitter scorn for Dr. Rhine. It is, of course, no surprise to find disagreement with his findings. One of the assets of being a parapsychologist is the opportunity continually to find oneself on the defensive and in the role of second-class citizen. It is an experience everyone should have. I wonder if even you may not have suffered the sidelong glances of suspicion from fellow scientists that you have left the firm footing of facts for ‘far out’ dreamings. In any case, my admiration for you and my loyalty to Dr. Rhine and to the scientific method he espoused impel me to send one more letter. (Now is the time to toss it into the dust bin.)

[The following paragraph is my favorite.]

The phenomena Dr. Rhine investigated were interesting to him because they seemed to fall outside the usual framework of physics, indicating a higher magnitude of importance than any botanical or other scientific problem he had hitherto encountered. I consider them tantalizing sparks thrown out by the universe—hints of how it is put together. Hints that should be followed up in our intense desire to clarify the magnificent mysteries of existence. Naturally we will put incorrect interpretations on them, especially at the beginning. But every piece of the puzzle is important, and eventually will join with other pieces, provided by other disciplines, to reach the final solution. Because I believe in the unity of knowledge, I believe that progress toward an understanding of the great mysteries can be reached by following any serious field of inquiry, so long as we use all the science at our disposal. We can make this progress through quantum physics and through studies of precognition. It is unfortunate that the field of parapsychology has been so much associated with the lunatic fringe. Dr. Rhine had to fight it every step of the way.

To him more than to anyone else I owe my love of science, my determination to keep an open mind on matters unknown, and my sense of awe for the magnificence of the mysteries of the universe. For every thinker he may have misled, he was to many another a shining example of devotion to science, of courage, and of honor.

If I actually send this letter I will be over-riding a strong inner cautionary feeling. Already it may be lying in the waste basket. On the other hand, I may as well be hanged for killing a sheep as for killing a lamb, so I think I will even enclose a copy of a chapter I wrote a few years ago for a memorial volume in Dr. Rhine’s honor. If you should read it, it would not alter your opinion of him. It would probably only give you feelings of disappointment in my naiveté. But it might explain why he continues to be my hero. With the special perceptiveness you possess, had you had the opportunity to meet on neutral ground I believe you each would have recognized in the other a kindred spirit. You will understand that, from me, it is the highest of accolades.

I had not realized that you once were associated with UNC. It is another feather in our cap.

Elizabeth A. McMahan

I mailed with the letter a copy of my nine-page chapter, “Joseph Banks Rhine, Teacher and Friend” [from  J. B. Rhine: On the Frontiers of Science.  K.R. Rao, Ed. McFarland Press. 1982].

Wheeler’s reply was written in longhand on August 14.

Dear Professor McMahan,

What a splendid article is your “Joseph Banks Rhine, Teacher and Friend”—and what a tribute it is, too, to the qualities of mind and heart of both of you! Bravo!

Hutton and Lyell and Darwin, those wonderfully independent-minded people to whose findings we owe so much, remind us how essential it is for the advance of science to have people who will think for themselves!—And after they’d thought for themselves and written what they thought, check[ed] it out with critical minded friendly colleagues before publishing! I’m so happy to read that Rhine had some of that “check out” in his makeup. After all, we know nobody can be anybody without somebodies around!

When some day you visit Austin and I have the pleasure and honor to take you to lunch, I’ll show you the approximately 40 pounds of ESP materials I’ve collected lovingly over the years, of which your warm tribute to JBR will form a precious part.

Thank you so much.
Sincerely yours,
John Wheeler

I never had a chance to visit Austin or take him up on his invitation to lunch. I’d like to have seen what was included in his 40 pounds of ESP materials. It was not until nearly 16 years later that I fully realized that other theoretical physicists were also reading the parapsychological literature for possible hints, apparently, as to how the puzzling contradictions innate in quantum mechanics may be expressed in everyday life. A bookstore I visited in Auckland during a freighter voyage in January 2002 was advertising Stephen Hawking’s new book, The Universe in a Nutshell, and mentioned this interest of theoretical physicists in parapsychological literature. I then recalled Wheeler’s ESP collection.

In our 1986 correspondence, Wheeler had seemed to show a more accommodating spirit toward parapsychologists than I had been aware of hitherto, but my wish to meet him halfway evaporated again when I read his autobiography, Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam. A Life in Physics, written with Kenneth Ford in 1998. By that time Wheeler was in his 80’s, and perhaps I should not try to hold him strictly accountable for his apparent reversion to his old uncompromising attitude toward the “pseudoscientists.” In this autobiography, as I’ve said, he mentioned that 1979 AAAS meeting in Houston, but utterly failed to tell the full story. [Italics mine.]

BettyMac’s Vision of the Future

The Wheeler contact and its ramifications have contributed to my belief that the fields of parapsychology and theoretical physics will merge some day. I have filed the original Wheeler correspondence with the Elizabeth A. McMahan Special Collection in Duke’s Perkins Library as a nugget that some future historian may find of interest when he writes the history of that merger.

Without having the breadth of knowledge or the mental acuity to undergird my belief, I now have the feeling that the greatest future progress in understanding parapsychological phenomena will be made by theoretical physicists. According to their research, the universe seems to be split into two separate realities: that of the subatomic world and that of the everyday world in which we normally operate, each world following its own set of rules. Reconciling the two, making quantum theory make sense for large-scale senarios as well as for subatomic ones, is a major scientific goal. According to quantum theory, subatomic particles have a fuzzy essence. Electrons can be in an infinite number of places at the same time. Subatomic objects can be influenced at a distance. Photons can be both waves and particles. That humans do function in this strange Quantum world is already suggested by recent brain research, which indicates (according to K. N. Shanor’s The Emerging Mind, 1999) that consciousness may be identical with the quantum field of information and energy.  [Roger Penrose (The Road to Reality, 2005) says, as I understand him, that gravity may hold the key to such unification; that applying its laws to subatomic particles as well as to larger entities may tweak the essential mathematical formulae into showing us that we already have the true and unifying “Theory of Everything.”]

Perhaps the strange phenomena studied by parapsychologists will also have a role to play in the eventual bridging of the present apparent disjunction between the two worlds of reality. How I wish that I could be present to welcome the future’s promising discoveries in this regard.

When Dr. Rhine said that the phenomena of parapsychology did not follow the laws of physics, it was classical (Newtonian) physics he meant. Quantum mechanics was scarcely known by anyone outside theoretical physics in those days. But now, every popular scientific magazine gives accounts of the totally counterintuitive phenomena studied by theoretical physicists. Quantum physics might appear to require that parapsychological phenomena exist.

Wheeler used to say, “Little steps for little people,” showing a willingness to make bold interpretations about the universe that went beyond those dared by most theoretical physicists. He said, “The universe is a self-excited circuit. As it expands, cools and develops it gives rise to observer participancy. Observer participancy in turn gives what we call tangible reality to the universe.” It is an expression of one interpretation of quantum physics: that physical reality does not exist objectively independent of the participating observers. Wheeler could give this concept of the universe no mathematical translation, so he used a diagram to represent it: a big U, with an eyeball on one arm (representing consciousness and observer participancy) and the big Bang on the other. William Press in a review of Studies and Essays in Honor of John Archibald Wheeler  (1988) said that this example of Wheeler’s provocative intuition is “a style of science that profoundly offends some, profoundly inspires others.” I am one inspired by such provocative thoughts, but I wish that Wheeler’s style had also permitted a more open mind where Parapsychology was concerned.

Pictures. The first is a cover from the AAAS publication Science. The next are pictures of Dr. Elizabeth McMahan, followed by a picture of Wheeler, then a picture of Albert Einstein, Hideki Yukawa, John Wheeler, and Homi Bhabha, and last is a picture of J. B. Rhine.

My Take on Edison and Talking to the Dead

In my book I briefly mention the interview Thomas Edison had with Scientific American about a machine he wanted to build to talk to the dead. While I was researching this section I talked to Jack Stanley, the curator of the Thomas Edison Menlo Park Museum at the time. He said Edison was putting on a show for the reporter. “He was 50% business and 50% show business.” Getting his name in the papers, getting everyone talking was good for business essentially.

A 2004 National Parks Service article essentially says the same thing. “This seems to be another tall tale that Edison pulled on a reporter. In 1920 Edison told the reporter, B.F. Forbes, that he was working on a machine that could make contact with the spirits of the dead. Newspapers all over the world picked up this story. After a few years, Edison admitted that he had made the whole thing up. Today at Edison National Historic Site, we take care of over five million pages of documents. None of them mention such an experiment.”

The National Parks Service is referring to a different interview, one with The American Magazine, and they got the name of the writer a little wrong. B. F. Forbes was actually B. C. Forbes, the founder of Forbes Magazine.  (It’s probably just a typo, c and f are right next to each other.)

Aside from a single reference by an unnamed “friend” who said that Edison said it was a hoax, I found nothing to truly confirm that this was a either a pr stunt or a hoax, or that Edison later took it back. Instead, what I found was that Edison continued to talk about the possibility of an afterlife until the day he died. Not as something he believed in per se, I don’t think he did, but it was something he though about, and theorized about, and he didn’t rule the possibility out.

In 1947 Edison’s son-in-law, John E. Sloane, while trying to downplay his father-in-law’s connection to the paranormal, said something that sounds closer to the truth: “Mr. Edison was interested in psychical phenomena only inasmuch as he was interested in everything.”


In other words, he was interested. Maybe curious is a better word. It was a puzzle to be solved. An unanswered question. That’s the sense I got from the Scientific American article. I loved how when Edison’s views were published on October 30, 1920, the Scientific American editors were so concerned for their own reputations they felt they had to explain themselves at the beginning of the piece in a box that was outlined twice for emphasis.

“When a man of the standing and personality of a Lodge [a respected British physicist who had also come out saying he was researching life after death] or an Edison interests himself in a subject, the public is never cold to the announcement of what he is doing and what he hopes to accomplish. So when the news went out, the other day, that Edison was carrying on experiments looking toward communication with the dead, the newspapers gave the item a place out of all proportion to that which its intrinsic importance in the scientific progress of the day and the stage to which Edison’s work has progressed would have entitled it. In this they were quite right, because their readers were interested in the bare news that Edison was working on the problem. We believe that our readers, too, are interested in what Edison is doing in this field and what he has to say about his theories and work. Hence this interview, in which Mr. Edison, himself, tells us what he believes about survival and why he hopes to establish communication. And if one thing stands out clearly beyond all other things in this interview, is that regardless of the manner in which sensational newspaper stories may present the matter, Edison stands for a return to sanity in our attitude toward the possibility of survival of personality and communication with those who may have survived.”

What actually stands out is that Edison believed it was possible.

While it’s clear is that he is anxious to distance himself from spiritualists and mediums, it is only because he thought better, more scientific devices could be constructed. “In the first place,” Edison begins, “I cannot conceive of such a thing as a spirit. Imagine something that has no weight, no material form, no mass; in a word, imagine nothing!” His problem with the perhaps non-physical nature of the afterlife reflected science’s problem with the afterlife, which continues today. He goes on. “I cannot be a party to the belief that spirits exist and can be seen under certain circumstances, and can be made to tilt tables and rap, and do other things of a similar unimportant nature. The whole thing is so absurd.”

“In truth, it is the crudeness of the present methods which makes me doubt the authenticity of purported communications with deceased person. Why should personalities in another existence or sphere waste their time with a little triangular piece of wood over a board with certain lettering on it? Why should such personalities play pranks with a table? The whole business seems so childish to me that I frankly cannot give it my serious consideration.” But then he immediately goes on to say, “I believe that if we are to make any real progress in psychic investigation, we must do it with scientific apparatus, in a scientific manner, just as we do in medicine, electricity, chemistry and other fields.”

“Now what I propose to do is to furnish psychic investigators with an apparatus that will give a scientific aspect to their work.”   He then explains a theory he has about what happens to us when we die, and talks about the machine he has been working on for some time with a colleague, and how it will operate.

The machine he described, which was never built, was essentially a phonographic device with a very sensitive diaphragm. When I spoke with curator Jack Stanley he pointed out that the phonographic devices at the time couldn’t record the living very well, much less the dead. They recorded acoustically using a horn.

Edison’s idea about what happens when we die is at least as out there as some of the other ideas I’ve heard researching this book. He had this theory about something he called the “unit of life,” which has intelligence and propagates in some way (I don’t know how). “Man is not the unit of life,” he told a Boston Globe reporter in 1927. “I have stated that many times, but no one understands. Man is as dead as granite. The unit of life consists of swarms of billions of highly organized entities which live in the cells. I believe at times that when man dies, this swarm deserts the body, goes out into space, but keeps on and enters another and last cycle of life and is immortal. The origin and meaning of life will not be solved for centuries.” It sounds like reincarnation, and sounds even more so in the Scientific American article.

Edison didn’t believe in telepathy, at least not telepathy in the way that J. B. Rhine envisioned it. Although when asked, “Do you believe in mental telepathy, and do you think it will become a means of human communication,” he answered, “At present I don’t believe it.” Which seems to indicate he at least had a little bit of a wait-and-see attitude. It’s important to note that Edison died in 1931, years before Rhine first published the results of his ESP experiments.


By the way, I found a letter in the Parapsychology Lab archives at Duke where Rhine mentions Edison and a physicist in Detroit named Fitzgerald. According to Rhine, Fitzgerald said he has read the notes of Edison, Dr. Charles P. Steinmetz (a scientist who collaborated with Edison) and Nikola Tesla (a physicist and engineer) and was going to build the machine that Edison described in the Scientific American article. I couldn’t find anything more about it, although admittedly I didn’t try too hard. It felt like another journey for another day.

One last thing. Edison repeatedly said he didn’t believe we had a soul. Towards the end of his life his attitude about that softened. In a 1926 New York Times piece the reporter writes, “Though he does not admit that evidence of any weight in one direction or the other now exists, he thinks that the indications are favorable to the existence of a soul rather than against it.” Then, according to a New York Times reporter, Edison urged religious leaders to find evidence that can’t be easily ridiculed by the skeptical. That’s because Edison knew how the scientific community worked. So forget about ouija boards and table rapping, a better way had to be found.

The very next year J. B. and Louisa Rhine arrived at Duke University and began their experiments.

The Natural History of a Prejudice

In 1934 the famous medium Eileen Garrett came to the Parapsychology Laboratory and allowed the scientists there to conduct experiments with her while she was in a trance. When she went into her trances another personality who called himself Uvani took over and spoke to the people in the room. Uvani said he was there to manage the communication between the living and the dead, and to protect Eileen, who was vulnerable while in a trance.

Lots of people participated in these sittings, including the lab scientists themselves, the wife of the president of Duke University, and one of Rhine’s colleagues in the psychology department—fellow professor Don Adams. A secretary recorded everything that was said.

Uvani started each session by describing the sitters first, and it was clear he liked everyone except Donald Adams. He said he felt a lot of negativity when Adams sat down. It was interesting because unknown to anyone in that room at the time, a week earlier, Adams had sent a letter to William McDougall, the head of the Psychology Department, who was in England at the time. In that letter, Adams and two of Rhine’s other colleagues, Helge Lundholm and Karl Zener, did everything they could to undermine the very experiments Adams was participating in that day.

The letter began, “Those of us in the department who have signed this letter are profoundly interested in the continuous work of our group,” and they were writing, “because, as things have developed since you left, it seems to us that grave dangers have arisen possibly threatening the integrity of our group.” The danger was J. B. Rhine. (More below.)


The men said they had evidence that their graduate students believed that in order to progress in the department they had to have an interest in psychical research. Psychical research has a place, they said, but “we do not like to have such research attain a dominance which would exclude the investigation of psychological problems in general.”

The evidence they offered was three students who had expressed concerns. One said he felt his position there might be shaky if he didn’t demonstrate not only an open mind on the subject, but unquestioning faith in their findings. Another said that a number of the other students were aggressively trying to convert them on the subject, to the point where they couldn’t talk to them about anything. They were like a cult. Last, a visiting graduate told them that one of the current graduate students was highly emotional about the subject.

Perhaps getting to the real heart of the matter they said that the whole situation, “is of vital concern to ourselves, and is developing into an increasingly distressing situation; for we depend in our own research work, to a degree, upon the cooperation of our graduate students, and if the latter turn more and more away from the problems of psychology in which we are interested we feel that our work will be greatly handicapped.”

The students “hero-worshipped” Rhine, they wrote. And “he had much closer personal relations with them than professors usually had with students.”

Certainly they, too, made every effort to get students interested in their own work, so the problem seems to be that Rhine was more successful. They went on to say that, “If this reaction gave the appearance of a personal choice, instead of an emotional response to intensive propaganda and persuasion we would feel that we have no right to protest.” In other words, if the students were genuinely interested in parapsychology and weren’t being bullied into it, they wouldn’t be bothering him about the matter. But then they gave an odd example to prove their point. They wrote about a graduate student who they said was pressured into switching to psychical research. But then they quote him as saying, “I regard Dr. Rhine as the most intelligent, most widely read, and greatest psychologist in the world, a Galileo of our age.” Overwrought perhaps, but not unusual for a young person, and in any case, it doesn’t sound like he was coerced.

The three men asked McDougall for advice and hoped that no one would get hurt, but “we are confident that mere admonition will not suffice. We write to you because the future success and happiness of our individual work and the continuance of the present department as a center of psychological research … is severely endangered by the present situation.”

McDougall wrote back suggesting they send a copy of their letter to Rhine. They beg off, saying the students spoke in confidence and while not named, are recognizable. The reason they didn’t approach Rhine directly, they wrote, “was our feeling that adjustment of the specific difficulties could not be reached without consideration of broader departmental policies than could be settled without your guidance.”

McDougall wrote an extremely delicately worded letter to Rhine. He said their colleagues were alarmed, but he doesn’t mention their letter. “It would be a great pity,” he wrote, “that if our endeavor to introduce P. R. [psychical research] into the circle of university studies should go awry through excessive zeal leading students to neglect all the more orthodox parts of psychology in favor of P. R.” We need to proceed more slowly, and perhaps more diplomatically.

Adams, at least, felt pangs of conscience about his actions. Two years later he wrote an essay called “The Natural History of a Prejudice.” It’s an amazing document and he makes some pretty astonishing admissions. While allowing that Rhine’s statistics, “… seemed impeccable and his gradually more rigorous conditions adequate,” Adams admits that nonetheless he longed for Rhine to fail. “I wanted not the truth, but to prove his positive conclusions wrong.” Whenever paranormal investigations had negative results, Adams wrote that he felt relief. “I would have been disappointed instead of delighted at discovering a new phenomenon …” He described how his colleagues would come up to him at meetings and conferences and “ask immediately—and hopefully—whether Rhine was crazy, duped, or crooked.” When Adams replied that Rhine was none of these his colleagues treated him with contempt. “Science, with a capital S, has no prejudice, but individual scientists have,” he confessed. (More below.)


When looking back at his behavior towards Rhine, Don Adams wrote with incredible and admirable honesty. “Have you ever had the experience of seeing a belief, that you have considered fundamental to everything you value, gradually but inexorably undermined? … I have never had much sympathy for the embattled Fundamentalists, but since facing a situation comparable in many ways to theirs and finding that I behaved just as badly, their conduct no longer seems so strange.”

Adams showed his essay to Rhine, which was again, admirable, considering how snarky it gets in places. In one section he wrote, “My colleague, J. B. Rhine, who had been a competent plant physiologist, but was still not much of a psychologist …” Adams crossed out the part which read “but was still not much of a psychologist” but it was still clearly legible. By the way, I would read things like this over and over, this attitude that Rhine wasn’t a real scientist because his PhD was in botany. It was like a prejudice within a prejudice.

Three times in the essay Adams called Rhine a schemer. “Rhine himself, though neither a liar nor a fool, was a scheming fellow. To be sure, any intelligent person who has been poor is likely to be …” And later, “I really believe he schemes in his sleep.” (I have to admit I cracked up when I read that.)

I thought Rhine showed enormous self-possession and insight when he read those sections and instead of clocking the guy, he asked, “if a schemer is not simply one whose constructive planning is not favorably regarded?”

Adams sums it all up best when near the end of his essay he wrote, “there is a sort of inexorability about scientific method before which prejudice is silly, small-minded and futile. Nature does not seem to care in the least what we think of her.”

The first picture is Eileen Garrett, the second is William McDougall and J. B. Rhine, and the third is J. B. and his colleagues in the Psychology Department. From left to right: J.B., Don Adams, Karl Zener, William Sterne, I don’t know who the next guy is, Helge Lundholm.

[The source for the essay quotes: Donald K. Adams, “The Natural History of a Prejudice,” Archives for the History of American Psychology, University of Akron.]

The Parapsychology Laboratory and the Russian Secret Police

“We will have a part-time relationship with a number of graduate students in psychology at Duke this year—more than before. Including a former Russian Intelligence officer, Nikolai Khokhlov.” – J. B. Rhine, September 13, 1965.

When I came across the letter which included that snippet naturally I thought.  ‘Well, isn’t that interesting?’  I looked into Khokhlov’s story and learned he wasn’t just a former intelligence officer, but also a would-assassin.

Eleven years before that letter was  written, when Khokhlov was a 31-year-old secret police officer working out of Moscow, he was sent to Germany to murder the anti-communist leader Georgi Sergeyevich Okolovich.  His wife Yanina begged him not to commit murder, but he didn’t know how to get out of it.  He’d already refused to kill someone once before and he knew he couldn’t refuse again.  Khokhlov went to Frankfurt and early in the evening on February 18, 1954 he knocked on Okolovich’s door.  But instead of killing him he said, “I am a captain in the MGB—the Ministry of State Security,  I have been sent to Frankfurt to organize your assassination.  I don’t want to carry it out and I need your help.”  Okolovich contacted the Americans.  Khokhlov, who couldn’t go back to Moscow now, left Yanina and his 18-month-old son Aleksander behind and defected to the United States.  He never saw them again.


Khokhlov was working as a radio editor and broadcaster in 1963 when he first wrote Rhine about his encounters with paranormal phenomena.  Rhine encouraged him to enroll at Duke, which he did, ultimately getting a PhD in psychology.  I emailed briefly with Khokhlov.  While at Duke, Khokhlov monitored Soviet involvement in parapsychology for Rhine, and when he got his PhD Rhine offered him a position on the staff.  But by then Khokhlov had become disillusioned with Rhine’s approach which focused on “pure statistical manipulations without touching the inevitable issue of human consciousness and its metaphysical essence.”  Khokhlov accepted an offer of a professorship from the California State University in San Bernardino instead.

I didn’t have the heart to ask Khokhlov about the wife and son who were left behind in Russia (why I will never be good at reporting certain kinds of stories). I know that he remarried, and had three more children, including a son who sadly died. And he retired from CSU/San Bernardino in 1993.  I would have liked to have gotten to know Khokhlov better. His email was very kind and generous and it would have been great to interview him in person, and he was willing, but it wasn’t possible for me to go out West for a number of reasons. Which is unfortunate.  He died in September, 2007, seven months after we emailed.  I have a file on him, which includes testimony which he gave to the Committee on Un-American Activities in 1956, and some articles about attempts on his life after he defected.

Khokhlov said he was very close to the Rhines for a while, but he eventually severed the relationship.  He ended his last email to me with:

“There are too many speculations about the field of parapsychology in the popular media, but very little real substance in the analyzes of that extremely important view upon human nature.  Actually, that field is not “para” anymore, but while the paralyzing grip of behaviorism is weakening, the truly scientific components of “para” are becoming the pillars of psychological research today. Alas, not in the USA, but everywhere in the sobering world.  Again, I wish you all the success that such a topic deserves.”

The pictures are from a November 20, 1954 Saturday Evening Post article titled I Would Not Murder for the Soviets, written by Dr. Khokhlov.

Dr. Arthur Holly Compton

On June 21, 1937, J. B. Rhine wrote Dr. William McDougall, the head of the Duke Psychology Department: “I had a talk yesterday with Arthur Compton, the Nobel physicist from the University of Chicago. He is agreed that no physical theory is applicable, and he is frankly inclined toward a non-physical mode of causation. The friend I have made at Princeton who knows Einstein asked him if he had any theory or way of approach which would make clairvoyance reasonable. He replied in the negative.”

So I knew that Compton was a Nobel Laureate, but there are actually a number of letters to and from Nobel Laureates in the Parapsychology Lab archives at Duke. I guess I was spoiled! I made a note to myself to keep a look-out for letters to and from him and found and copied a few, but I didn’t look as hard as I should have.

Rhine wrote the following about Compton on April 16, 1947. “My only fear about him is that he has too far compartmentalized his thinking so as to be uncritical in dealing with problems that border on religious thinking. From what Eddy tells me he must be pretty uncritical in his deals with mediumship. [Eddy was Sherwood Eddy, the Protestant missionary and author, and someone who Rhine thought of as far too credulous] I have heard other reports leading to the same conclusion. Nevertheless, I think it would certainly be worthwhile to approach him and find out just what his attitude is. I have met him a couple of times …”

They met again in May, 1947 and Rhine’s fears were put to rest. Rhine had heard that Compton had been sitting with mediums, but Compton told him that he’d been asked to take part in a few sittings, and he had, but it wasn’t something he planned to pursue. Rhine happily (and a little triumphantly) wrote Eddy that Compton’s interest in mediums was incidental. “I found that he has a broad-minded and generous scholarly interest in parapsychological investigation. It is an interest that goes back to his undergraduate days. I was greatly pleased to know that this firmly entrenched interest exists in the mind of a man of such high scientific attainment.”

And Compton wrote about Rhine on August 9, 1947. “Altogether, it is my impression that Rhine is the most able investigator of parapsychological phenomena in this country. As you are well aware, it is difficult for an investigator of this field to retain the scientific support of his colleagues. On inquiry within our own Department of Psychology at Washington University, [where Compton was the Chancellor of the University] I find that Rhine, although he has had some difficulties, has been able to maintain the respect of other psychologists for the work he is doing.”

To Rhine he wrote on the same day, “I find great interest in your article on The Relation Between Psychology and Religion [referring to an article Rhine wrote with that title]. I hope to discuss some of the points with you if opportunity arises.” (Compton was a very religious man.)

Here is a Compton bio from the NASA website (where I got the picture of him above):

American physicist Arthur Holly Compton was one of the pioneers of high-energy physics. In 1927 he received the Nobel prize in physics for his definitive study of the scattering of high-energy photons by electrons which became known as the Compton Effect. This work was recognized as an experimental proof that electromagnetic radiation possessed both wave-like and particle-like properties and laid a foundation for the new “quantum” physics. All the experiments onboard the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory rely on the detailed knowledge of the interaction of high-energy gamma-rays with matter that Compton first described.