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No. 3190:
Victorian Supernatural Science

by Andy Boyd

Today, Sidgwick, Sidgwick, and the paranormal. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The Victorian era, spanning most of the nineteenth century, is known for many things; among them, a renewed examination of all things spiritual in response to the flood of scientific advancements. Darwin's Origin of the Species challenged the very foundations of Christianity. In response, English society developed a scientific interest in examining alternatives - alternatives such as the supernatural.

Stanislawa Tomczyk
Stanislawa Tomczyk   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

It was during this period that the Society for Psychical Research was formed. It wasn't the only paranormal society to emerge in that era, but it was special in its stated purpose, namely, the "unimpassioned enquiry which has enabled science to solve so many problems."

Eusapia Palladino levitation table
Eusapia Palladino levitation table   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Of note were its founding members, many of whom were scientists, all of whom had reputable credentials. Among the founders was Henry Sidgwick who served as society's first president. Sidgwick taught moral science at Trinity University. His gentle demeanor and diverse interests made Sidgwick a treasured colleague and teacher. His book The Methods of Ethics proved a classic in the field of moral philosophy.

Sidgwick championed the education of women, and together with Anne Clough founded Newnham College, an all-women's college in Cambridge. Here he met and married Eleanor Balfour. Among her many achievements were multiple scientific papers published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society coauthored with Lord Rayleigh. Rayleigh would later receive the Nobel prize in Physics. In addition to her papers on physics, Eleanor Sidgwick was one of the first three women to serve on a British royal commission - a commission on secondary education.

Henry Sidgwick
Henry Sidgwick   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick
Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Yet much of her time was devoted to the activities of the Society for Psychical Research. While the society was founded on noble principles, its very existence was called into question. Most scholars simply dismissed the paranormal outright. Ghosts. Communicating with the dead. Out-of-body experiences. How could people who took such things seriously be themselves taken seriously? And people who were attracted to the society were by nature disposed to believe that some paranormal claims were real. Most of the society's research slanted in favor of the supernatural. But not all.

Henry and Eleanor Sidgwick were among those who caused public uproars by exposing some well-known mediums as charlatans. Exposing fraud was certainly part of the intention when the society was formed. But it also caused dissent among the ranks. Sherlock Holmes' creator Arthur Conan Doyle famously led an exodus of members when a photographer of ghosts was exposed as a con artist.

Paraghost   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

The Society for Psychical Research still exists, publishing a quarterly, peer-reviewed journal. As at its inception, research must be "underpinned by a highly rigorous methodology." And also as at its inception, most scholars dismiss the society and it's journal. It's an interesting yet little-known remnant of the Victorian era.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Roger Luckhurst. The Victorian Supernatural. From the British Library website: Accessed October 9, 2018.

Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick. From the Wikipedia website: Accessed October 9, 2018.

Henry Sidgwick. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website: Accessed October 9, 2018.

Henry Sidgwick. From the Wikipedia website: Accessed October 9, 2018.

Society for Psychical Research. From the Wikipedia website: Accessed October 9, 2018.