Enchanted Cambridge

While modern popular science still often relies on traditional claims of the inherent incompatibility of science and the ‘miraculous’, current history of science scholarship has shown remarkably fluid boundaries between elite science and the ‘occult’. No location in Britain, and perhaps the whole Western hemisphere, is more apt to challenge popular standard notions of the alleged disenchantment of science than Cambridge.


John Dee

For instance, on the eve of the Scientific Revolution the famous natural philosopher and mathematician John Dee, a student at St. John’s and early fellow of Trinity College, conducted alchemical and astrological studies, and explored techniques for the communication with angelic beings.

At the end of the seventeenth century, early members of the Royal Society such as Ralph Cudworth at Emmanuel College and Henry More at Christ compiled natural histories of witchcraft, apparitions and poltergeist phenomena. With the support of Robert Boyle and other fellow Royal Society members, Henry More edited and substantially supplemented the crowning outcome of these endeavours, Joseph Glanvill’s posthumous Saducismus Triumphatus.

Later, Isaac Newton’s celebrated achievements in cosmology and physics formed an inseparable part of his sustained and systematic studies of apocalyptic prophecies, alchemy and other occult questions.

Henry Sidgwick

After proponents of rationalised Christianity ridiculed and pathologised those reporting ‘supernatural’ phenomena (which became firmly associated with Catholicism) during the Enlightenment, the nineteenth century saw a renewed scientific preoccupation with the ‘miraculous’ in the wake of large-scale movements such as mesmerism and spiritualism. Cambridge’s most famous son after Newton, Charles Darwin, only had a fleeting interest in the investigation of spiritualist mediums, but in 1882 the Trinity philosopher Henry Sidgwick became president of the first substantial scientific body dedicated to the study of thought-transference, clairvoyance, haunted houses, mediumship and other problems that had become intellectually outlawed during the Enlightenment.

Though formally based in London, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was very much a Cambridge affair. Under the auspices of Sidgwick and his wife Eleanor (the mathematician, one-time assistant of J. J. Thomson, second Principal of Newnham College and sister of Prime Minister Arthur Balfour), the SPR attracted many formidable representatives of the physical and human sciences from Britain and abroad, some of whom became future presidents of the Society.

Some of Henry Sidgwick’s pupils at Trinity and St. John’s – such as the philosophical writer Edmund Gurney, the classicist Frederic W. H. Myers, and the Australian-born student of law and philosophy Richard Hodgson – became the most active researchers within the early SPR. Investigating hypnotism, automatisms and psychological questions related to mesmerism and spiritualism, the ‘Sidgwick group’ represented British psychology at the first four International Congresses of Experimental Psychology and considerably informed the ideas of the ‘fathers’ of modern professionalised psychology in the USA (William James, a future SPR President and close friend of Gurney, Myers and Hodgson) and Switzerland (Théodore Flournoy).

John W. Strutt

John W. Strutt

In the twentieth century, Cambridge continued to spearhead British elite universities employing scientists and philosophers with a serious interest in unorthodox scientific problems. For example, the physicist and Nobel Laureate John William Strutt (the 3rd Baron Rayleigh) of Trinity College was intensely interested in mediumship and became president of the SPR in 1919. Strutt was followed in 1953-1955 by astrophysicist F. J. M. Stratton, Director of Solar Physics Observatory and President of Gonville and Caius College, who was particularly keen on investigating reported poltergeist phenomena.

F. J. M. Stratton

F. J. M. Stratton

In 1906, a Cambridge University Society for Psychical Research (CUSPR) was founded, which consolidated local interest in the active investigation of alleged parapsychological phenomena by students and scientists. Maintaining close links to the London SPR, the CUSPR  became dormant at around the turn of the century, but is apparently still formally in existence.

Robert H. Thouless

Robert H. Thouless

While Trinity College established the Perrott-Warrick Fund after receiving private bequests in 1937 and 1956 for the purpose of supporting psychical research, Cambridge notables continuing to advocate research in extra-sensory perception and psychokinesis were the renowned Trinity philosopher Charles D. Broad, the Corpus Christi Fellow and Reader in Educational Psychology, Robert H. Thouless (who, together with the Austrian physiologist Berthold P. Wiesner, suggested the denotation of parapsychological effects as ‘psi phenomena’), and Donald J. West, a Darwin Fellow, professor of Clinical Criminology and director of the Institute of Criminology.

Eric J. Dingwall

Eric J. Dingwall

In the mid-twentieth century, a Cambridge resident not formally affiliated with the University, the anthropologist Eric J. Dingwall, rose to prominence within the SPR. Shortly before emigrating to Canada in 1970, George Owen of Trinity College, a lecturer in genetics and mathematics, investigated the Cambridge adolescent Matthew Manning (Britain’s ‘teenage Uri Geller’).


Brian Josephson

Towards the end of the twentieth century, Cambridge-trained biologist and Fellow of Clare College, Rupert Sheldrake, became known for his experiments in human-animal telepathy and is now the foremost populariser of parapsychological research in Britain. Apart from Sheldrake, Trinity Fellow and Nobel Laureate in physics Brian Josephson at Cavendish Laboratory is perhaps the most well-known scientifically eminent British advocate of research into extra-sensory perception today.

While anthropologists at the Scott Polar Research Institute organise the ‘Magic Circle’ (a seminar series featuring discussions on the anthropology of magic), college libraries and Cambridge University Library hold a number of unique archival collections, which are indispensable for those studying the history of the relationship between science and the ‘miraculous’. The most important collections for historians working on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are the Sidgwick and Myers papers at Wren Library, and the SPR archives at CUL.

© Andreas Sommer

About Sommer_HPS

Dr. Andreas Sommer, historian of the human sciences at Cambridge University, UK. View all posts by Sommer_HPS

8 responses to “Enchanted Cambridge

  • Ashley Knibb

    I would really like to know more about the work of sidgwick and myers please? I already have a bit on them, but feel their work could help mine.

  • catgrimm

    All of this is truly fascinating – and for me even more so because my great grand uncle was Colonel Le Mesurier Taylor who conducted paranormal investigations at the Ballechin house-which is something I need to read more about. Thanks for posting this!

    • Sommer_HPS

      Many thanks for your comment!

      Do you happen to know if your great grand uncle is the same Colonel Le M. Taylor who wrote an article with the title “Experimental comparison between chance and thought-transference in correspondence of diagrams”, published in 1890 in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research?

      If so, I’d be interested to hear if there might be any surviving correspondence between your great grand uncle and other researchers in England and the USA, since I’m currently working on an article about these experiments.

      • catgrimm

        Sorry for not responding sooner – summer travel got in the way. Yes that is definitely him: Colonel George Le Mesurier Taylor. Here’s what I know about his correspondence–sorry for it’s vagueness: during the 1970’s (I think) my mother, Cherry Wilder who was a fiction writer (later genre fiction) interested in all things occult contacted the Society for Psychical Research and offered to bequeath to them some letters of Great Uncle George’s she had in her possession. From what I gather they were grateful to her for her donation and made her an honorary member of the Society. So somewhere in their archives they probably have Great Uncle George’s letters–but I do not know to whom he wrote. (Would love to find out though!)

  • Sommer_HPS

    Thanks! The SPR archives are here in Cambridge, but the correspondence of your Great Uncle does not appear to be catalogued. I’ll try to find out if it’s included and let you know.

  • Sommer_HPS

    No luck, I’m afraid. I got this reply from the archivist of the SPR collection:

    “The uncatalogued material is material that has been given to SPR since 1990. Taylor’s papers would have been amongst the material transferred from London, and would have been in the section covered by my new catalogue. We do have, in the ‘Proceedings’ box for 1889-90, the original drawings analysed in Taylor’s article, but there is no correspondence with them.”

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