Boletín Electrónico de Parapsicología Vol.16, No.2, Mayo 2021
Publicación cuatrimestral del Instituto de Psicología Paranormal – Todos los Derechos Reservados
ENSRUD, Barbara & RHINE FEATHER, Sally (2021). J.B. Rhine: Letters 1923-1939: ESP and the Foundations of Parapsychology.
Jefferson: McFarland. Pp. 546. ISBN: 978-147668466-6.
Fortunately for those interested in the history of parapsychology, reading the epistolary exchange between J.B. Rhine (1895-1980) – the father of modern experimental parapsychology – who founded the first laboratory at Duke University in 1930, with dozens of celebrities and scientists from around the world, is finally materialized in the production of a unique work that collects the period from 1923 to 1939.
The work demonstrates the evolution in this concern and how it was shaping his interest, from spiritualism to the application of mathematics and nascent statistics in social sciences, to evaluate psi experiences.
The work begins with a foreword by physician Larry Dossey, a Preface by his daughter the clinical psychologist Sally Rhine Feather, and an Introduction by Barbara Ensrud, a journalist and educator of wine and gourmet cuisine, who carefully selected Rhine’s correspondence, especially the period leading up to 1930 which is little known compared to the history of the laboratory’s establishment thereafter. This “change of direction” began from his initial skepticism and the disputes that the young biologist had with several spiritualists of his time to the design of the famous “Zener” cards and their popularity, which generated a “game” that even thousands of American families came to use to test their extrasensory perception (ESP).
For both compilers and commentators, J.B. Rhine turned out to be a visionary figure. His research on ESP was not a passing fad or an irrational theory of a mad scientist – rather, it forever changed the way we evaluate the mind and its scope, the concept of reality and time: his work had a significant impact on the whole world, but above all on postwar European psychology and psychic research, as his correspondence reads. The exploration of mind-to-mind communication (telepathy), remote sensing (clairvoyance), knowledge of future events (precognition) and, later, the power of mind over matter (psychokinesis) were the subject of scientific study in the laboratory using a protocol under controlled conditions rarely, or ever seen before, during the stage of British psychic research.
Until Rhine bequeathed the techniques to investigate and prove the existence of ESP, scientists of his time opposed resistance as a purely anecdotal episode or the product of chance or chance; never proven or barely empirically demonstrable and, therefore, discarded from scientific research as unworthy of research. Through Rhine’s correspondence, the reader will be able to follow his path: morally obliged to bring the study of these mysterious faculties of mind into an academic setting, particularly at Duke University. The letters narrate the first years of his pioneering work, laying the groundwork for further research in the field of ESP, which Rhine coined under what he called a “new frontier of the mind”. In 1935, having published research, he wrote to a colleague saying, “There is something new on the horizon [… ] even more devastating to our view of the place of mind in nature” in reference to his recent discoveries on precognition and psychokinesis.
Although Rhine earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in botanical biology at the University of Chicago, specifically the study of plant life, both compilers comment that Rhine did not like the idea of spending the rest of his working life looking at plant cells through a microscope; he felt the need to work on something major, something that would help all mankind: “My interest in psychic research had arisen from my desire to find a satisfying philosophy of life that could be considered scientifically sound and could even answer some of the most urgent questions about the nature of man and his place in the natural world.” These questions were certainly the possible survival after death, the cases of apparitions, the dreams that predicted future tragic events, and that in turn, had increased the interest of society at large after World War I.
In 1922, while at the University of Chicago, Rhine and his young wife Louisa showed great interest in spiritualism and attended a lecture by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous British novelist. Intrigued, Rhine began reading books by British psychic researchers from the Society for Psychical Research such as Frederic Myers, Eleanor Sidgwick and, in particular, Sir Oliver Lodge, who claimed to have had contact with his son who died in the war. Rhine maintained and retained a prolific correspondence largely with leading psychologists and psychic researchers in the United States and Europe, for example, Gardner Murphy, Whately Carington, G.N.M. Tyrrell, and many others. In the early twenties, she kept letters with the English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) and the American psychologist William McDougall (1871–1938) at Harvard about her desire to change the course of her career as well as the Irish medium Eileen Garrett (1893–1970), to participate in a session with the medium Mina Crandon of Boston (better known as “Margery”), who soon became disillusioned when she was discovered to be involved in fraud. Correspondence can also be found with leading journalists of his time who praised his work, and other famous psychologists of his time such as Carl G. Jung, B.F. Skinner, Aldous Huxley, Upton Sinclair, writer and politician Helen Adams Keller (1880–1968) and film star Charles Chaplin (1889–1977). In conclusion, both editors take the effort to scan and read more than 1500 letters from the period, selecting those that trace the advances, challenges and fears that produced in Rhine the discovery of new frontiers of human consciousness. His findings clearly aroused enthusiasm and controversy, not only in the scientific community, but also in American society at the time, particularly in response to his publications, which were translated into Spanish into more than ten languages.