HENRY SIDGWICK was one of the founding fathers of the Society for
Psychical Research and its first President from 1882-4. He was again
President from 1888-92.
He went up to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1855, became a Fellow in 1859, resigned in 1869 for religious reasons, was made Praelector in Moral and Political Philosophy in 1875, and served as Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy from 1883 until 1900.
With Frederic Myers, Lord
Rayleigh, Arthur J. Balfour, and Balfour's sister
Eleanor (whom he was to marry) he founded a small group to investigate professional mediums, with which he persevered despite
'the persistent and singular frustration' it involved. Heartened by some of
William Barrett's work in 'thought transference' he consented to become the SPR's first President in 1882, a decision which encouraged several of his friends - who had been hesitant - to join it. In 1884 he interviewed Madame Blavatsky and other Theosophist leaders; the sub-committee set up as a result recommended - successfully - that
Richard Hodgson should be sent to India to investigate the phenomena which had been reported. Sidgwick resigned the Presidency to allow for change but was re-elected in 1888.
He did a great deal of tedious, inconspicuous, necessary work, notably in verifying the ghost stories some of which were used as a basis for his wife's report on
'Phantasms of the Dead'; and carrying out, with her, an elaborate series of experiments to test the suggestion made by two Danish psychologists that what looked like telepathy was in fact the effect of involuntary whispering. (They concluded that this did not account for all the results obtained.) More excitingly, he and she went off to a high powered polyglot houseparty - English, French, German and Italian were
spoken - at Professor Charles Richet's house in the lle Rombaut to test the powers of
In spite of a stammer, he was a lively talker who 'always succeeded in finishing his sentences'. That he had an agreeable sense of humour appears in his lament about 'the unfortunate appearance of the first students of Newnham' (who were all very good looking and presumably likely to distract male undergraduates from their work).
As a final summary Professor C. D. Broad's words in his obituary notice cannot be bettered:
'His main contribution to psychical research' lay 'in the weight which his known intelligence and integrity gave to the serious study of the subject, in the tact and patience with which he handled the very difficult team he had to lead rather than to drive', in his 'extremely high standard of evidence' and in 'his courage and persistence'.
Source (with minor modifications):
The Society for Psychical Research, 1882-1982: A History by Renée Haynes (1982, Macdonald & Co (Publishers) Ltd, London).
Articles about Henry Sidgwick on this website:
Sidgwick and Psychical Research C. D. Broad