The 2011 Outstanding Contribution Award was posthumously awarded to Dr. Michael Thalbourne. The following obituary by Lance Storm appeared in Mindfield 2(2).
It is with deep regret that I announce the passing of Michael Anthony Thalbourne. He died in the Royal Adelaide Hospital, on May 4, 2010, after being in a coma for over two days. Michael was born in Adelaide, South Australia, on March 24, 1955. Professionally, he will be remembered as a parapsychologist of considerable merit. Family members, friends, and scholars who knew Michael well, will remember him as a loving, convivial and supportive soul, while others will remember him as a trusted scholar and academic.
Michael set the standard from an early age. He achieved continued success in primary and secondary school. Excelling in his studies, his teachers had great expectations of him. He didn’t let them down. Usually topping his class—and it was not unusual for him to get perfect scores—he was not only a dux student at St. Paul’s College, but was top student in the state of South Australia. Naturally, he went on to study at university.
Interested from an early age in all things paranormal, and subsequent to earning his Ordinary and Honours Degrees at the University of Adelaide, Michael headed for Scotland to embark on a rigorous education in parapsychology. He was one of the first to complete a PhD in parapsychology, supervised by Dr. John Beloff, at the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at Edinburgh University. He met and befriended many a fledgling parapsychologist, most of whom are now guiding lights in the parapsychological community today.
After graduation, Michael worked for short spells in Iceland and India with Professor Erlendur Haraldsson, researching such challenging topics as reincarnation, and the psi abilities of the Indian mystic Sai Baba. He then took up a post as a junior parapsychologist in the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research at Washington University in St. Louis MO, working under the supervision of Dr. Peter Phillips. It was in the so-called ‘Mac-Lab’ that Michael’s colleagues came under attack by the infamous and now ailing hard-nosed skeptic and magician James Randi, who sought to discredit Mac-Lab staff just to prove some vague point. He had two of his poorly trained magicians infiltrate the lab so they could indulge in deceptive practices that included cheating and all manner of fraud. Needless to say, this reprehensible behaviour was detected, and no published works ever emerged from Randi’s farcical escapade. Nevertheless, Randi launched a press conference in New York without informing Dr. Phillips or other Mac-Lab staff of his intentions. The publicity was so negative that the university, putting its reputation before its staff, closed the Mac-Lab, and froze the funds donated in good faith by James S. McDonnell (of the McDonnell-Douglas Corporation) specifically for paranormal research.
As an aside, it was about this time, in his late twenties, some thirty years ago, that Michael developed bipolar disorder (manic-depression). Michael would often try to see the ‘good’ side of his mania, and as C. G. Jung once said, “my work will be continued by those who suffer”—and Michael in his suffering from the highs and lows of bipolar disorder and psychosis did gain insights and inspirations that few can rival or muster. These influences are most telling in the advantages they gave him in seeing things with clarity that others only glimpsed as though through a glass darkly. Michael would make associations, connections, and correspondences; and he would try to see patterns in the fabric of this reality, and others. Accordingly, he would conjecture and propose novel ideas; launch new theories; and muse over and write about the possible, the not so possible, and the unequivocally impossible. Thereby, Michael held his own as a unique and innovative researcher. There is no telling where Michael would have gone with his ideas but, sadly, these are now lost to the world.
After leaving the Mac-Lab, Michael returned to Australia, and took up a position in the School of Psychology as a Visiting Research Fellow (VRF) at his alma mater the University of Adelaide. For a good two decades, and more, Michael published numerous articles, and I have it on good authority that the income he generated from his publications alone often helped balance the School’s books. It was during that time in 1998, that Michael took on the role of supervisor of my Honours thesis. He then supervised me in my PhD years from 1999 to 2001. Since that time, we have worked on a number of research projects, funded or otherwise; and co-authored a number of articles.
While still a VRF, Michael then ventured into the arena of journal editing by launching (with Robb Tilley’s assistance) the peer-reviewed Australian Journal of Parapsychology in 2001. At that time Michael had already taken on the role of President of the Australian Institute of Parapsychological Research, Inc. (AIPR), and his first task was to consolidate the AIPR (founded in 1977) as the leading institute in parapsychological research in Australia. While there are many amateur paranormal investigation groups throughout Australia, none of these have created, and continue to foster, an environment for the furtherance of academic research by collaborating with parapsychological communities on the local and international scene. For five years, and ten issues, Michael assiduously and competently edited the journal before handing it over to me. For the same period of time, I have endeavoured to keep that light burning that Michael lit a decade ago, and our journal is now in its tenth year, and still going strong.
Often, however, a career can take a turn for the worse, and the nadir of Michael’s career must surely be his sudden, dreadful and unnecessary demise at the University of Adelaide. The controversy over his leaving extends more generally to the sour and unprecedented attitude this ‘sandstone’ university boasting G8 status has recently adopted against parapsychology. No good reasons were ever given, because none exist, that explain to any degree of satisfaction why a productive scholar like Michael should be so carelessly pressured out of his appointment in such a harsh manner. While it is a matter of fact that Michael chose to resign, Michael made that decision out of sheer frustration because his academic freedom had been depotentiated by the powers-that-be. Michael didn’t make this decision lightly, as he knew full well that his VRF appointment and contact with the university were major constants in his life, and for a man with his delicate demeanour there was considerable risk involved in abandoning the relative security that the university offered.
Over the last couple of years in semi-retirement, Michael kept his chin up for the most part, working from his humble flat in Kurralta Park. As is evidenced by our journal and many others, his publication output maintained the same steady rate that was typical of Michael, which is a credit to him, given the restrictions forced on him by not having the resources of a university behind him. Michael expressed some frustration around this time about the restrictions on psi research, and sometimes it would appear that his occasionally disturbing actions were precipitated by this state of affairs. However, he shared with his colleagues a vision of a light at the end of the tunnel, and for the most part he remained optimistic and cheerful to the end. Sadly, it was over the weekend of April 1st and 2nd that Michael slipped into unconsciousness while snuggled up in his bed. He was found by his parents and taken immediately to hospital, but sadly passed away while still in a coma on Tuesday night April 4th.
From an email sent by Michael’s brother Bryan to Michael’s many friends and colleagues on the news of his passing: “As his brother I have been privileged to know him for 50 years and it helps to know that you have held him in high esteem.” I can only confirm Bryan’s sentiment. In the fleeting 12 years that I have known Michael as a supervisor and colleague, but most importantly as a friend, I will always recall with fondness, admiration, and respect, Michael’s gentle manner, his extensive knowledge, and his unremitting support, oftentimes under, and in spite of, the pressures brought on by his occasional suffering. Michael’s legacy lives on in his vast oeuvre. To his undying credit, and society’s and academia’s everlasting benefit, he wrote or co-wrote hundreds of peer-reviewed journal articles, papers, and letters; he co-edited two books on parapsychology, compiled his pivotal Glossary of Terms Use in Parapsychology (2003), and penned his thought-provoking monograph on Psychopraxia, The Common Thread Between ESP and PK (2004).
At a more personal level, it is only just dawning on me, and slowly cutting deeper and deeper, the inexpressible loss I feel in Michael’s passing. No longer can I seek out his thoughts on a given topic, or depend on him for an obscure psychological or parapsychological reference, or consult his vast encyclopedic knowledge, or even chat over a lunch-time hamburger and fries at his favourite fast-food restaurant. From the depths of my being, and on behalf of Michael’s family, Michael’s many friends in and outside academia, and the psychological and parapsychological communities worldwide, and in harmony with the words of French songstress Edith Piaf, “death is the beginning of something”, we send our love and gratitude to you Michael wherever you are. You were, and are, an inspiration to us all. You are sadly missed.