Balfour Stewart


          Professor Balfour Stewart was one of the distinguished physicist members of the Society for Psychical Research. Born in Scotland, he worked at the Universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews on 'natural philosophy', the ancient name for science. In 1859 he was made Director of Kew Observatory and in 1862 became a Fellow of the Royal Society in connection with his research into radiant heat. He was appointed Professor of Physics at Queens College, Manchester in 1870. His published work included studies of physics and of energy; and he was much interested in the curious phenomena of the medium D. D. Home, of whom he is quoted as saying that though: 

'Mr Home possesses great electro-biological power by which he influences those present ... however susceptible the persons in the room to that assumed influence, it will hardly be contended that Mr Home biologized the recording instrument'.

Sir William Crookes, who recorded this, was not sure what was meant by 'electro-biological power'. Today, equated with psychokinesis, it might very well be suspected of affecting that instrument.

Professor Stewart was president of the SPR from 1885-7. His Presidential Address emphasised the need to accumulate, to sift and to discuss evidence for the paranormal. Later he set up a Committee to investigate 'alleged Spiritualistic phenomena' and included among such distinguished members as Crookes, Oliver Lodge, Frederic Myers and Edmund Gurney a skilful conjurer named A. J. Lewis. Arthur, he met Henry Sidgwick and other members of the psychical research group and joined the Society in 1883.

Though he was elected to the House of Commons in 1885, and served at different periods as Chief Secretary for Ireland and as President of the Board of Trade he quitted politics after the electoral defeat of 1906, and devoted many years to studying the complicated, interlocking, automatically written scripts known as the Cross Correspondences (about which he contributed a long article to the Hibbert Journal in 1909) and he became particularly interested in the development of 'Mrs Willett's' work in this connection; not only for the data it produced but for the way in which it developed. He wrote in 1935 (Proceedings XL) a very long survey of her mediumship, written as a study of the psychological mechanisms involved in the personality of a sensitive who remained awake and aware while writing down her 'messages', now concentrated, now letting 'the pen run free'. He provided an immense museum of data here, too little used; making it clear throughout that though he believed in Mrs Willett's' supernormal powers' and was inclined to believe in survival, it was not his object to establish evidence for either. What he wished to do was to illuminate the actual process that went on.

Most of his later concepts are already implicit in his SPR Presidential Address (Proceedings Vol. XIX, 1905-7). He dismisses Theodor Flournoy's idea that telepathy is physical, a matter of 'rays', defining it as 'a universal form of interaction between psychic existences'. He 'cannot understand' Myers' ideas about the subliminal self, preferring Leibnitz' theory that the living creature is 'a hierarchy of monads'. He sees the human individual as 'an ordered association of psychic units, or centres of consciousness, linked by telepathy', and so on. If that telepathy breaks down, presumably multiple personalities emerge.

Though all this seems excessively esoteric, and one is sometimes reminded of the riddle 'What goes ninety nine clunk, ninety nine clunk, ninety nine clunk' (answer, a centipede with a wooden leg), those with world enough and time to read his work may still find much that is rewarding.

Source (with minor modifications): The Society for Psychical Research, 1882-1982: A History by Renée Haynes (1982, Macdonald & Co (Publishers) Ltd, London).



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