Barrett, Sir William Fletcher (1844-1925)

views updated

Barrett, Sir William Fletcher (1844-1925)

One of the distinguished early psychical researchers, a principal founder in 1882 of the Society for Psychical Research in England. Born February 10, 1844, in Jamaica, West Indies, Barrett was educated at Old Trafford Grammar School, Manchester, England. He became a science master, physics lecturer, and, from 1873 to 1910, professor of physics at the Royal College of Science, Dublin, Ireland. In 1916 he married Florence Willey. He was a fellow of the Royal Society, the Philosophical Society, and the Royal Society of Literature and a member of the Institute of Electrical Engineers and the Royal Irish Academy. He was a highly respected scientist, responsible for important developments in the fields of metal alloys and vision.

Studies in mesmerism aroused Barrett's curiosity for the physical phenomena of Spiritualism. He began his first investigations in 1874. Two years later he submitted a paper, "Some Phenomena Associated with Abnormal Conditions of Mind," to the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The Biological Committee refused it, and the Anthropological subsection only accepted it on the casting vote of the chairman, Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace. The paper contained an exposition of the professor's experiments in telepathy, the existence of which he considered proved, holding that this method of communication is probably explainable by some form of nervous induction.

Barrett was inclined to attribute the more marvelous physical phenomena of Spiritualism (levitation, the fire ordeal ) to hallucination. He declared that he himself had heard psychic raps in broad daylight, out-of-doors under conditions that made trickery impossible.

In January 1882 Barrett called a conference in the offices of the British National Association of Spiritualists. At this conference the Society for Psychical Research was born. During a visit to the United States in 1885 he gave the impetus to the foundation of the American Society for Psychical Research. His theory of hallucination as the cause of the greater part of physical phenomena was soon abandoned. He found mediums among personal friends who were above suspicion, and he could carry out experiments in daylight.

Every branch of psychical research claimed his attention, but his most important studies were on the divining rod. He collaborated with Theodore Besterman on a brilliant and comprehensive study of the subject. He did one of the earliest studies of near-death experiences and explored the philosophical implications of psychic matters. In his paper "Some Reminiscences of Fifty Years of Psychical Research" (1924), he concludes that there is convincing evidence for (1) the existence of a spiritual world, (2) for survival after death, and (3) for occasional communications from those who have died.

Barrett was convinced of the possibility of life of some kind in the "luminiferous ether." "It is in harmony with all we know," he writes in On the Threshold of the Unseen, "to entertain a belief in an unseen world, in which myriads of living creatures exist, some with faculties like our own, and others with faculties beneath or transcending our own; and it is possible that the evolutionary development of such a world has run on parallel lines to our own. The rivalry of life, the existence of instinct, intellect, conscience, will, right and wrong are as probable there as here, and, in course of time, consciousness of our human existence may have come to our unseen neighbours, and some means of mental, or even material communications with us may have been found."

Although Barrett is remembered for his work in psychical research, he also did outstanding work as a physicist and in 1899 was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. He died May 26, 1925, in London.


Barrett, Sir William F. Death-Bed Visions. London: Methuen, 1926. Reprint, Wellingborough, England: Aquarian Press, 1986.

. The Divining Rod. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1968.

. On the Threshold of a New World of Thought: An Examination of the Phenomena of Spiritualism and of the Evidence for Survival after Death. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1918.

. On the Threshold of the Unseen. 1917. Reprint, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1918.

. Psychical Research. New York: H. Holt, [1911].

. "Some Reminiscences of Fifty Years of Psychical Research," Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 34 (1924).

Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York: Paragon House, 1991.

Inglis, Brian. "Sir William Barrett (1844-1925)." Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 55 (1988): 16.

About this article

Barrett, Sir William Fletcher (1844-1925)

Updated About content Print Article