by Barbara Ensrud

J. B. Rhine was one of the seminal and visionary figures of the twentieth century. His groundbreaking ESP research at Duke University in the 1930s changed forever the way we look at things: reality, time, the human mind and its surprising capacities. His work made a significant impact—worldwide—on the fields of Psychology and Parapsychology, as will be shown in his considerable correspondence. For the first time exploration of telepathy (mind-to-mind communication), clairvoyance (knowledge obtained without aid of the five senses), psychokinesis (mind over matter), and precognition (knowledge of future events) came under scientific scrutiny in the laboratory utilizing scientific protocols under controlled conditions.

This was a new approach to the subject of psychic phenomena. Until Rhine developed the techniques for investigating ESP scientifically, its very existence—though widely accepted by large and diverse segments of the world’s populations—was considered by scientists of the day as purely anecdotal, not only unproven but unprovable, and therefore dismissed by the scientific world as unworthy of investigation.

Rhine’s reaction: Let’s see what we can find. Let’s investigate.

Thus Rhine was led to bring study of the mysterious faculties of the mind to an academic setting at Duke University, and follow scientific protocols to do so. Rhine had no rule book to follow; no one before had done quite this type of investigation, so there was no roadmap to build on or follow. Rhine’s letters from the 1920s and 1930s chronicle the early years of his pioneering work, establishing the foundation for subsequent research into the field of extrasensory perception (ESP—Rhine coined the familiar acronym), what he dubbed a “new frontier of the mind.” In 1935, having already published game-changing ESP research, he wrote to a colleague: “There are new things on the horizon…still more devastating to our views of the place of mind in nature.” The reference was to his recent findings on precognition and psychokinesis.
It is important to note that Rhine came to the subject of ESP as a scientist himself. He received his Masters and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in biology, specifically botany, the scientific study of plant life. As his letters reveal, however, Rhine did not relish the prospect of spending the rest of his working life peering through a microscope at plant cells. He felt the urge to work at something larger, something that would help the whole of humanity in a more immediate way.

“My interest in psychic research had grown out of my desire to find a satisfactory philosophy of life, one that could be regarded as scientifically sound and yet could answer some of the urgent questions regarding the nature of man and his place in the natural world.”

These “urgent questions” – of survival after death, the peculiar instances of deathbed apparitions, dreams that foretold tragic future events—prompted a surge of interest following World War I, coinciding with Rhine’s own coming of age.

Joseph Banks Rhine was born in Waterloo, Pennsylvania on September 29, 1895. His father, an itinerant schoolteacher, moved the family often, finally settling in rural Ohio near Marshallville. As a child, Rhine was curious, thoughtful and determined in his studies. He attended local Ohio colleges preparing to become a minister but science courses led him to lose his religion; he quit college to find himself and in 1917 enlisted in the Marines, serving for two years in the Dominican Republic, where he won a top award as sharpshooter. In 1920 he married his high school sweetheart, Louisa Weckesser, who had completed her master’s degree in biology at the University of Chicago. Both acquired Ph.Ds. at Chicago in botany. By 1924 they were on their way to careers in plant physiology.

Already, however, Rhine was questioning his future and the desire for meaningful work. In 1922, while at the University of Chicago, he and Louisa attended a lecture by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who spoke about his work with spiritualists in England and the quest for survival after death. Rhine was intrigued and began to read the writings of British psychic researchers at the Society for Psychical Research (SPR)– Frederic Myers, Eleanor Sidgwick and, in particular, Sir Oliver Lodge who reported contact with his son who had died in World War I.

From quite early in his adult life, Rhine had a sense of history—hence, his prolific correspondence, much of it with leading psychologists and psychical researchers of the day in the United States and Europe, including Gardner Murphy, Whately Carington, G. N. M. Tyrrell and numerous others. Starting in the early 1920s, he kept copies of significant letters he wrote, from queries to Alfred North Whitehead and William McDougall at Harvard about his desire to change career direction to the well-regarded medium Eileen Garrett to the request for a sitting with the infamous Mina Crandon, the Boston medium known as Margery whom he would soon expose as fraudulent; and later to top journalists of the day who acclaimed his work, to colleagues in psychology such as Carl Jung, as well as such notables as [ ] B. F. Skinner, Aldous Huxley, Upton Sinclair, Helen Keller and screen star Charlie Chaplin. The letters lend an immediacy to the activity and events of the time, putting us at the scene as the story unfolds, making it come alive.

Letters in this volume cover the early years of Rhine’s innovative research on psi. The editors scanned over 1500 letters from the period, selecting those that most directly plot the breakthroughs, the challenges, the discoveries that uncovered new frontiers of human
consciousness. Rhine’s findings ignited excitement and controversy—not only among scientists but in the public at large, particularly in response to the publication of Rhine’s best-selling book, New Frontiers of the Mind (Farrar & Rinehart) in 1937. A Book-of-the-Month Club selection, it went into multiple printings and was translated into several languages.

There were, to be sure, skeptics and scoffers among the serious challengers to the work. Rhine welcomed fair criticism, which he felt would help refine his research methods, but he grew tired of dismissive critics who had not bothered to read the published reports that addressed many of their criticisms.

Rhine’s accomplishments in this period set the stage for future directions in parapsychology in significant ways:

  • He established parapsychology as a new research specialty in an academic setting;
  • He founded a new research journal (Journal of Parapsychology, in continuous publication for more than eight decades);
  • He established a network of experimental researchers in the U.S. as well as in Europe;
  • He wrote two books that drew wide attention to ESP from scientists and the general public, as well as generating significant publicity in mainstream media.

It was on this foundation that the field of parapsychology became established. The letters tell this story.