I only just heard that Gertrude Schmeidler, a well known psychologist and parapsychologist, died on March 9, 2009. She was 96 years old! We talked a number of times while I was researching my book, although she preferred email. It frustrated her if she couldn’t couldn’t think and respond quickly, although I never noticed a delay.
So sad. Towards the end of my research I looked into an interesting experiment that Gertrude had tried in the seventies. She started bringing a control group to hauntings along with mediums. She was doing this in order to use statistics to analyze the medium’s findings. She’d put together a list of things that were reported in the initial hauntings. She’d then compare what the control group sensed and felt to what the mediums sensed and felt. Did the medium’s impressions fit more than the control group’s?
But she’s probably most famous for what are referred to as her sheep/goat experiments. From the Parapsychological Association website. “Repeatedly, average ESP scores of subjects who rejected any possibility of ESP success (whom I called goats) were lower than average ESP scores of all other subjects (whom I called sheep). This was inexplicable by the physical laws we knew; it implied unexplored processes in the universe, an exciting new field for research. From then on, naturally, my primary research interest was parapsychology.”
Most of my questions were about Parapsychology Lab and the people who worked there. These were the people I was writing about and most have them had passed on. She knew them, and her descriptions were so personal and colorful.
I asked her about her first contact with J. B. Rhine, who headed up the Lab.
“That first contact I had with the Parapsy Lab was a pleasant surprise to me: a letter from Dr. Rhine, whom I’d never seen, saying nice things about my work. I don’t remember what year, but it came soon after I began publishing in parapsychology. Early-ish in World War II.”
Did she ever work at the Lab?
“No, I never had any formal connection to Dr. Rhine’s lab. It took my husband and me about five minutes of serious consideration to decide it wasn’t what we wanted—about the same length of time as to decline a similar invitation to him from the military. But I gladly accepted – and very much enjoyed – Dr. Rhine’s invitations to visit for a weekend.”
I found a letter where Rhine described her visit. Everyone loved her of course, and Rhine noted that she seemed to get along with Charlie Stuart and Betty Humphrey best. I had asked Gertrude to describe Betty, and her description, like all her descriptions, gave such an evocative glimpse!
“When I first met her she was a tall, rather gawky young woman, strong and well built, with a face that the French might call belle laide—not conventionally pretty but attractive because she was such a thoroughly nice person that it came through in the way she looked. She had a friendly, hearty manner; outgoing. And not only was she bright, and a good experimentalist who was sensitive to people’s needs, but she also was interested in the deeper theoretical questions that her research couldn’t directly address.”
I asked her why she didn’t accept Rhine’s overtures about working at the Lab. Most of the reasons had to do with her husband’s professional needs and interests, and Gertrude’s interest in teaching psychology, and family concerns, but she also said this.
“ …. here’s an anecdote to show the second major reason: my preferring not to be in an authoritarian society. On one of my delightful, friendly visits to the parapsy lab, always full of good will, I attended a seminar. The staff and visitors sat around a table, with Dr. Rhine at the head. He’d bring up a problem – for instance a request that had to be granted or denied. Anyone who had an idea spoke up, one way or the other. When all had had their say, heads turned to Rhine and there was silence. Then he spoke, telling us the decision … There was no pretense of being first among equals; Dr. Rhine was First.”
Two days later she wrote me, concerned that she had been unfair to J. B., which shows what a decent person she was.
“I told you only a badly incomplete, one-sided impression of J.B. The very same characteristic that made it impossible for me to work contentedly with or under him was a characteristic that made him an important, useful figure in the world. There’s a place for alpha males! In fact, it’s impressed me that most of the (admittedly few) Nobel laureates I’ve known were tall, muscular, powerful men, insistent on achieving their immediate goals and careless about brushing other people out of their way.”
I found a 1952 letter Gertrude had written to Gaither Pratt, another scientist at the Lab, after Rhine had fired Betty Humphrey and Frasier Nicol (that’s a whole other story).
“Betty has written me something – only a little- of what’s been happening at the Laboratory, and told me that she and Frasier left. I’m sorry – even though I don’t know enough about it, to know what to be sorry about. But your Laboratory was such a wonderful place when everyone was friendly and bubbling with ideas and full of new projects that I can’t help wishing those times never had to change.”
Gertrude did get to teach psychology, as she had wanted, at City College. But her archives are not there! They’re at Duke I see, you can read an overview of the collection here.
Wow. It’s so extensive and varied. Sy Mauskopf interviewed her in 1976 for his book The Elusive Science, and there’s a tape of that interview at Special Collections Library at Duke, in the Seymour H. Mauskopf Papers, 1972 – 1985.