Coover, John Edgar (1872-1938)

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Coover, John Edgar (1872-1938)

Psychologist and director of the Psychical Research Laboratory at Stanford University whose brief flirtation with psychical research had a significant negative effect upon the whole field. Cooper was born March 16, 1872, at Remington, Indiana, and was educated at Stanford University (A.B., A.M., Ph.D.).

Shortly after Harvard University received a large grant to carry out psychical research in 1912, Thomas W. Stanford gave a significant endowment for the same purpose to the university his brother had founded. Coover had just assumed a position at Stanford and was the first to receive funding from the grant, making him the first faculty member of a large American university to conduct parapsychological experiments.

He conducted a set of methodologically sound experiments in telepathy and clairvoyance with one person "sending" from a deck of playing cards to a second person in another room. Over a five-year period he carried out 10,000 trials and in 1917 presented an impressive 600 page report, Experiments in Psychical Research at Stanford University. The detailed report, filled with an impressive set of statistics, claimed the attention of American scientists. Its skeptical conclusions resulted in negative reactions to further efforts to develop university-based psychical studies.

After these experiments, Coover had little to do with parapsychology. He wrote an occasional article for the periodicals of the Society for Psychical Research and the American Society for Psychical Research and contributed a chapter in a book edited by Carl A. Murchison, The Case for and Against Psychical Belief (1927). Coover reached a somewhat agnostic position on the question, an attitude not conducive to pursuing research in a highly controversial field. He died February 19, 1938, at Palo Alto, California.

Toward the end of Coover's life a mild controversy emerged concerning his 1917 report. In 1935 Robert Thouless carried out a new examination of Coover's data and suggested that it contained statistically significant results. J. B. Rhine later suggested that because of the stress Thouless felt from his colleagues, he refused to report his favorable evidence. This conclusion is bolstered by a letter Thouless wrote to the president of the university, saying his research was "offensive in the nostrils of" his fellow psychologists.


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

Coover, J. E. Experiments in Psychical Research at Stanford University. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1917.

Rhine, J. B. "History of Experimental Studies." In Handbook of Parapsychology, edited by B. Wolman. New York: Van Nostrand Rhinhold, 1977.

Thouless, Robert H. "Dr. Rhine's Recent Experiments in Telepathy and Clairvoyance and a Reconsideration of J. E. Coover's Conclusions on Telepathy." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 43 (1935): 24.