From Séance to Science: Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick

Who is Psychology’s Greatest Hero? A few days ago, I sparred with my Psychology dept colleagues Dr Stuart Ritchie and Dr Thomas Bak in a fun event at Edinburgh Science Festival.Screen Shot 2017-04-11 at 17.32.43

We each had 12 minutes to make a pitch for our own hero, then had to defend our candidate under questioning from the audience and each other, culminating in an audience vote. We presented in order of hero birth-date – so Stuart went first with the Victorian polymath Francis Galton (1822-1911). Then I presented the case for psychical researcher and women’s education pioneer Eleanor Sidgwick (1845-1946), and Thomas championed the Soviet neuropsychologist and developmental psychologist, Alexander Luria (1902-1977). Thomas did a great job, and Luria clearly won the audience vote, with Sidgwick coming second. Despite a brave effort by Stuart, Galton was scuppered by a piercing final point from the audience about eugenics.

Eleanor Sidgwick is unknown to most psychologists, so why did I choose her? Sidgwick1870She was an exceptional mathematician, scientist, and reformer – outstanding achievements particularly because in Victorian times most women were expected either to marry and run their husband’s household, or if unmarried to provide domestic support for their unmarried brothers or parents. I wanted to read more about Eleanor (my sources are listed at the end of this piece) and to bring her work to a wider audience. I also wanted to convey the message, perhaps surprising to some, that in their early years, psychology and psychical research were difficult to distinguish from one another.

Eleanor was fortunate to be born (1845) into one of Britain’s most powerful political families. Her father James Maitland Balfour was a wealthy Scottish landowner and railway investor, and her mother was Lady Blanche Harriet Gascoyne-Cecil. Eleanor Balfour was the eldest of 8 children, several of whom had distinguished careers in science or politics, including her younger brother Arthur, who became British Prime Minister.

Euclidean-GeometryLady Blanche’s influence. Lady Blanche took two steps that helped to shape Eleanor’s future. First, she ensured with a codicil to James Balfour’s Will that her daughters would be financially independent, not having to marry to be financially secure (though they would give up this support if they married). Second, she encouraged Eleanor to learn Euclidean geometry and it turned out that Eleanor excelled at mathematics, which she largely taught herself. James Balfour died when Eleanor was only 11, and Lady Blanche was in poor health, so in her twenties Eleanor took over the running of the three grand Balfour family homes – Whittinghame in East Lothian, Strathconon House in Ross-Shire, and 4 Carlton Gardens in London. This phase of her life ended when she married and moved to Cambridge.

Electrical science. Eleanor’s brother-in-law was John William Strutt – later to 260px-Ohm's_Law_with_Voltage_source_TeX.svgbecome Lord Rayleigh who won a Nobel prize in 1904.  In 1879 Strutt took over from James Clark Maxwell as Professor of Experimental Physics and Head of the Cavendish Lab at Cambridge. In 1882, Eleanor contributed to Strutt’s work on the measurement of the fundamental units of electricity, and co-authored three papers for the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Meeting Henry Sidgwick. Meanwhile, Eleanor’s brother Arthur was being taught philosophy at Cambridge by Henry Sidgwick. Henry Sidgwick and Arthur shared a fascination with mediumship and Eleanor attended séances with them. It’s thought that this is how Eleanor Balfour met her future husband. Henry drew Eleanor into his interests in psychical research and women’s education. She married Henry in 1876, when she was aged 31. Eleanor and Henry had an unusual Victorian marriage, a working partnership. Henry Sidgwick, Edmund Gurney, and Frederic Myers founded the Society for Psychical Research in 1882, and Eleanor was an important contributor to early SPR research projects such as Phantasms of the Living. Henry was also a strong supporter of women’s education, and was co-founder of Newnham College – the second female college at Cambridge. For the rest of her life, Eleanor adopted and extended upon Henry’s two passions, though she herself was not an overtly passionate person.

The Society for Psychical Research. Eleanor was a thorough and skeptical investigator of paranormal claims. Here are just a few examples of her work in psychical research.

Spirit photography. The biologist Alfred Russel Wallace endorsed some spirit photographers, and asked the SPR to investigate. Eleanor took on the task, and in 1891 published On Spirit Photography, detailing the fraudulent methods used by the photographers to dupe bereaved members of the public.

Telepathy. Eleanor was a careful and hands-on investigator. She detailed in one case how she attempted to effectively blindfold a claimant, but concluded ‘no bandages of the eyes can be made satisfactory’. She also learned conjuring and codes, which helped her to detect cheating by the Creery Sisters. Although sometimes revealing fraud and error, in her later years Eleanor became convinced that there was some good evidence in support of telepathy.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. Eleanor wrote the entry on Spiritualism for the 1875-1899 edition of the Encyclopaedia. She enraged Spiritualists by likening séance methods to those used to ‘add glamour’ to the later Greek oracles, and contributed to the departure of some of the more ardent Spiritualists from the SPR.

seancebwThe psychology of mediumship. The great psychologist and psychical researcher (he was President of the SPR 1894-1895) William James studied  mediums including Mrs Leonora Piper. James and his co-investigators were not just interested in whether there was evidence of telepathy or spirit communication, but sought to understand in psychological terms the behaviour and phenomena displayed by the medium while seemingly in a trance, such as automatic writing and speaking in voices. James said in 1904: “The ‘exploration of the Subliminal’ I regard as the great psychological problem”. Eleanor Sidgwick later (1915) wrote on this topic, modestly describing her work of over 600 pages as ‘a contribution’. Although Eleanor often identified the limitations of mediumistic feats as evidence for the ability to communicate with the deceased, much later in her life she was reported to have become convinced that some such evidence did exist.

Statistics of chance coincidence. Drawing on her mathematical expertise, Eleanor also contributed pioneering statistical work on the role of chance coincidence as a confounding factor in interpreting evidence, for instance on the coincidence between someone seeing an apparition/hallucination of a person, and that distant person experiencing a crisis. This work was presented to one of the early international Congresses of Psychology (Sidgwick, 1897).

Psychology and Psychical Research. From the years of the SPR’s inception to around 1910 psychical research and psychology were difficult to distinguish from one another. Several of the early Congresses of Experimental Psychology were presided over by the founders of the SPR, who presented papers both on putative paranormal phenomena such as telepathy and on psychological aspects such as hypnosis and induced hallucinations. I was intrigued to read in  Sommer’s (2013) thesis that when discussing the name of the new society for psychical research, the founders considered Society (or Association) for Psychological Research. Indeed Sommer concluded that ‘…the only fruitful collective and long-term effort to conduct and consolidate psychological research in England between the early 1880s and the inauguration of the BPS in 1901 came from the inner core of the SPR – Gurney, Myers, the Sidgwicks and several of their collaborators.’ In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the scientific community (not just philosophers and psychologists, but physicists, chemists, and mathematicians) was curious about psychical research, perhaps because of technological developments such as the discovery of electromagnetism and the invention of wireless telegraphy that made people question what might be the limits of human communication. Later, psychical research became marginalized as psychology sought to demarcate itself as a science, though many great psychologists continued to have an interest in anomalous experiences.

A British psychology. Eleanor contributed so much to the early years of the SPR, having an impact on the distinctive anti-reductionist ‘flavour’ of British psychology at that time, which held that ‘the categories and terminology of the physical sciences were not basically applicable to the mind’ (Oppenheim, 1985). What’s incredible to me is that all this was done alongside her primary occupation, at Newnham College, Cambridge.

Newnham College. In addition to donating over £30,000 of her own money to Newnham, from 1876-1919 Eleanor was the college’s Treasurer. Running the Balfour family estates no doubt helped to prepare her for this role. She was no mere book-keeper, but entirely and successfully controlled the finances of the college, including ensuring that there were resources substantially to expand the college’s buildings and student body. Amazingly, in addition to being Treasurer, Eleanor was Vice Principal 1880-1882, and Principal 1892-1910. With her work at Newnham, Eleanor’s influence and agenda was felt. She ensured that research was valued for its contribution to the intellectual health of the college, establishing research fellowships. Also, she tirelessly and effectively pressed for the entry of women into University examinations, and for the awarding of degrees to women students – though it took much longer for Cambridge to accept the latter.

Eleanor supported the Suffragette cause, but did not approve of violent protest. So she pursued women’s education, and educational reform more generally, with a quiet but steely resolve.

Killer stats. More than once, Eleanor demolished baseless and lazy arguments with data. For example, a journalist ill-advisedly opined in the Pall Mall Gazette: ‘Intellectual success can only be achieved by women at the cost of physical deterioration and consequent weakening of the stock’. Eleanor promptly organised a committee representing both Oxford and Cambridge, and circulated over 500 questionnaires to women students, and to the sisters of women students as a comparison group. She evaluated the health of students, of their parents and children, hours of sleep, exercise, and in 1890 reported the results in The Health Statistics of Women Students. The critics were silenced.

Sidgwick1920Honorary degrees. Eleanor was awarded 4 honorary degrees. Tom Ruffles has blogged about these (link in sources below). The final one (LLD) was awarded by the University of Edinburgh when she was aged 79, in July 1923. Ruffles obtained the speech given by the Dean of the Faculty of Law, Prof James Mackintosh, as he awarded the degree. This nicely sums up her achievements:

.. it would be hard to find a lady better entitled to University honour or more deserving of the gratitude of her sex. During her long connection with Newnham College as Principal and Bursar, she proved herself a sane and judicious leader in the movement for the Higher Education of Women. She has contributed materially to the progress of Electrical Science by the part she took in investigating the absolute values of the fundamental electrical units. In the more occult region of psychical research, she has pursued her inquiries in the same strictly scientific spirit, not without a certain measure of philosophic doubt.

Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick was too self-effacing (and perhaps too busy!) to write an autobiography, and sadly as yet there is no biography. That’s why I was keen to read what I could about her life and to introduce Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick to the Science Festival audience. Unlike some so-called scientists, she did not dismiss psychic claims out of hand, but engaged with them as a scientist should, testing and questioning them. Eleanor was an outstanding scientist and reformer, in times when it was immensely difficult for a woman to achieve such things.


Oppenheim, J. (1985). The Other World. Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Oppenheim, J. (1995). A mother’s role, a daughter’s duty: Lady Blanche Balfour, Eleanor Sidgwick, and feminist perspectives. Journal of British Studies, 34, 196-232.

Ruffles, T. (2010). Eleanor Sidgwick and her doctorates.

Shills, E. & Blacker, C. (Eds) (1992). Cambridge Women: Twelve Portraits. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sidgwick, E. M. (1897). On a statistical enquiry into hallucinations. Dritter Internationaler Congress für Psychologie (pp. 390-392). Munich: J.F. Lehmann.

Sidgwick, E. M. (1915). A contribution to the study of the psychology of Mrs. Piper’s trance phenomena. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 28, 1-652.

Sidgwick, E. (1938). Mrs. Henry Sidgwick. A Memoir by Her Niece. London: Sidgwick & Jackson.

Sommer, A. (2013). Crossing the boundaries of mind and body: Psychical research and the origins of modern psychology. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University College London.


About Caroline Watt

Prof Caroline Watt is a founder member of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit.
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3 Responses to From Séance to Science: Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick

  1. Pingback: Sidgwick’s 1885 seed of an idea – Sharon A. Hill

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