Friday, November 13, 2015   9:31 PM

History of Parapsychology III: Frederic W. H. Myers

Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsycholpgy Foundation

I published an article about Frederic W.H. Myers entitled “Vignettes on Frederic W.H. Myers” (Paranormal Review, 2014, No. 70, 3-13). As said in the first paragraph:

“Frederic W.H. Myers, a researcher of great importance for the history of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), and for the history of parapsychology in general, was one of the most interesting and complex figures of nineteenth-century psychical research. His work has been discussed in recent times by several authors [such as Emily Kelly and Trevor Hamilton] . . . In contrast to these works, in this paper I do not attempt to present a cohesive picture or study of Myers. Instead I present several somewhat disconnected notes about Myers’ life and work, some of which have been compiled from little known sources, that I hope will interest those readers of the Review who are fascinated with his work and with the period in which he worked.”

Frederic W.H. Myers

I included sections in the paper entitled: Impressions and Behaviors, Travels, Discussing Myers in America, Discussions of Myers in France, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death in the United States and in France, and Elected SPR President.

In France Charles Richet wrote about Myers in his book The Natural History of a Savant (1927):

“What I admired most in Myers was his scrupulous scientific probity. Although he had an excellent memory, he would take exact notes of all the circumstances of any experiment. His courtesy, his charm, his learning, were set off by a delicate sense of humor, which made his conversation delightful. He was a man of the world, in his manners far removed from those savants who wrap themselves in their specialty like bears in their fur . . . .”

It is interesting to know about Myers’ activities in countries such as France and the United States. “Some of Myers’s travels to France were in connection to the international psychology congresses. The first one, held at Paris in 1889, included psychical research in its programme . . . In this congress we find Myers participating in discussions about hallucinations and hypnotism with other attending the congress . . . In the 1900 congress, also held in France, Myers . . . presented a paper about the mediumship of Mrs Rosalie Thompson . . .”

I also presented in the article seldom discussed aspects of Myers’ visit to the United States and how his work was received there. “In the United States Myers participated in a psychic congress held in Chicago. A report published inThe Dialread: ‘ ‘Psychical Science’ was the subject of a Congress some of whose sessions must have made the judicious grieve. It was given dignity by the presence and frequent participation of Mr. Frederic W.H. Myers, and, we need hardly add, proved the popular success of the week’ . . . During this congress, held during August of 1893, Myers presented papers about ‘The Subliminal Self,’ and ‘The Evidence for Man’s Survival after Death’ . . . While he was in the States Myers said that he had seances with Mrs. Piper . . .”

Many authors in the United States commented about Myers, among them Clark Bell, Hereward Carrington, William James, Joseph Jastrow, Rufus Osgood Mason, Morton Prince, and Boris Sidis. Some comments referred to Myers’Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death (HP, 1903), such as the following positive and negative views:

“Physician Rufus Osgood Mason (1903) wrote a two part review of HP in theNew York Times. The systematic approach of Myers, Mason believed, made the work an ‘epoch-making book’ . . . The review ended arguing that pioneers in science—such as Galileo, Newton, Franklin, Morse, and Darwin—were rejected at first, and so we should expect the same in the case of Myers . . . A different perspective was presented by skeptical philosopher I. Woodbridge Riley (1905). PlacingHP in the context of the ‘new thought’ literature, he stated that the future would tell if ‘this pioneer of the subliminal was not a mere squatter, whose holdings are bound to grow narrower with the advance of the legitimate psychologist and physiologist’ . . . He clearly believed there were normal explanations for many of the phenomena described by Myers . . .”

There were also mixed reactions from France. “Pierre Janet . . . regarded Human Personality as a work presenting ‘exaggerated generalizations and adventurous hypotheses,’ but also ‘remarkable descriptions and useful indications’ . . . Another French writer, philosopher Émile Boutroux (1908), believed Myers contributed precise observations to the study of the subliminal mind. But he was skeptical of Myers’ use of gradations and similarities between phenomena to make his points.”

I ended the article—by no means an exhaustive review of Myers—citing Richet, “who considered Myers the harbinger of a new science. Richet believed that Myers’s ‘name will not perish, his work is indestructible’ and ‘will be placed at the top of this future psychology which perhaps will eclipse all other human knowledge.’ ”


© 2023 The Parapsychological Association. All rights reserved.