West's main career has lain in the medical, legal and psychological study of crime. He is the Director of the Institute of Criminology, and Professor of Clinical Criminology at Cambridge, where he is a Fellow of Darwin College. He has written eleven books on various aspects of this subject and contributed to many
specialised periodicals and symposia.
Between 1947 and 1950, he served as Research Officer to the Society for
Psychical Research. Numerous SPR Journal articles record his energetic careful work, including reports on Mass Observation's study of hallucinations; on the fable that a well known medium had once disclosed to the Home Office the identity of
Jack the Ripper; on some Proxy Sittings; and on a supposed case of xenoglossy in which two mediums claimed to have spoken in trance the languages of their Chinese and African
'spirit guides'. At a subsequent meeting experts in both languages said only that the mediums had produced 'sounds no one could understand'. One African tribal language was however unknown to them. West found a man who could speak it and
organised another séance at which the latter addressed the medium involved but elicited no more than 'long, voluble, unintelligible replies'. West commented that this did not necessarily involve bad faith on the medium's part. He also investigated a 'haunted' dance hall, spent a night there listening to a tap dripping, floors creaking, and doors rattling in the wind; found a disused sewer which was 'a runway for rats'; interviewed the three main witnesses to the haunting; and found nothing necessarily paranormal. His report on the year's work in 1948 made some interesting suggestions for further study, notably of physiological changes in mediums, of extra sensory perception in animals, and of folklore.
Later, he contributed papers on ESP tests with psychotics (outlining his own experiments at three different hospitals, and surveying the results obtained by other psychiatrists) and on a series of long distance clock-card guessing experiments on volunteers, carried out with G. W. Fisk. This yielded evidence of what is called 'experimenter effect' (the idea that subjects score more successfully with one experimenter than with another); a theme taken up again in West's
SPR Presidential Address. Here, while dismissing the idea that psi is 'an illusion founded on a mixture of careless experiment, fraud and statistical artefacts', he suggests that 'a high degree of elusiveness is almost the only
recognisable characteristic of ESP', and that 'if resistance to progress may lie partly in our own unconscious reluctance to face the phenomena squarely' this should not be impossible to overcome.
He obtained in 1958 the McDougall Award for distinguished work in parapsychology. He
was President of the SPR from 1963-5 and Chairman of the Society's Research Grants Fund.
His books on parapsychological topics include Psychical Research Today (London, 1954 - a revised paperback edition 1962) and
Eleven Lourdes Miracles (London, 1957).
(with minor modifications): The Society for Psychical Research, 1882-1982: A History by
Renée Haynes (1982, Macdonald & Co (Publishers) Ltd, London).
Articles by Donald West on this website:
The Psychology of Mediumship