Dingwall, E(ric) J(ohn) (1890-1986)

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Dingwall, E(ric) J(ohn) (1890-1986)

Anthropologist, author, and one of the most experienced psychical investigators of modern times. Born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), he was educated at Pembroke College, Cambridge University, England (M.A., 1912), and the University of London (D.Sc., Ph.D.). He joined the staff of the Cambridge University Library. The son of a Scot living in Ceylon in 1890, he was reticent about his personal affairs, and did not publicize his exact birth date. He appears to have had some private wealth in his earlier years, since he was able to travel and follow his intellectual interests.

As a young man, Dingwall became interested in psychical phenomena and in 1921 was named the director of the department of Psychical Phenomena for the American Society for Psychical Research. The following year he became the re-search officer for the Society for Psychical Research, London, where he served for five years. While there he wrote his first books on psychical research, including (edited with Harry Price) Revelations of a Spirit Medium (1922) and How to Go to a Medium (1927).

Through the 1920s and 1930s Dingwall traveled widely through Europe and to the United States to investigate mediums, among whom were such famous ones as "Eva C., " Rudi and Willi Schneider, Stephan Ossowiecki, and "Margery" (Mina Crandon ). He also researched social and religious conditions relating to abnormal mental phenomena in Spain in 1935, and in the West Indies in 1936. These provided additional material for his articles and one additional book, Ghosts and Spirits in the Ancient World (1930).

Besides his work as a psychical investigator, Dingwall continued his academic interest in anthropology, making himself knowledgeable on some of the more bizarre aspects of the human personality. His publications in these areas include Studies in the Sexual Life of Ancient and Medieval Peoples (1925), The Girdle of Chastity (1931), Artificial Cranial Deformation (1931), and, with H. H. Ploss and other colleagues, Woman: An Historical, Gynecological and Anthropological Compendium (1935).

During World War II he worked at the Ministry of Information and British Foreign Office (1941-45), and resumed his writing after the war. Dingwall's numerous titles include Racial Pride and Prejudice (1946); Some Human Oddities (1947); Very Peculiar People (1950); with K. M. Goldney and T. H. Hall, The Haunting of Borley Rectory (1956); with J. Langdon-Davies, The Unknown: Is It Nearer?; The American Woman (1956); and, with T. H. Hall, Four Modern Ghosts (1958).

During the 1960s Dingwall coedited the four-volume set Abnormal Hypnotic Phenomena (1967-68). He died at St. Leonardson-Sea, East Sussex, England, on August 7, 1986. As one of Britain's oldest psychical researchers, he was widely respected for his careful reports and judgment in the field of the paranormal during some sixty years' investigation of some of the most famous and controversial mediums of the twentieth century. Although tending to skepticism, he did not hesitate to affirm the possibility of the genuineness of psychical phenomena and was scathing about the limitations of fellow researchers. As a body, he claimed, "they are hardly distinguished by the accuracy of their observations, the correctness of their records or the scrupulous care required in the conduct of their experiments."

He also cautioned against prima facie belief in fraud, even though claimed phenomena might seem suspect. In his article "The Hypothesis of Fraud," published in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), he comments on the controversial phenomena of the famous medium "Eva C." that "it may be thought that the case against the phenomena is so strong that the subject may be at once dismissed. Such a standpoint would in my opinion be entirely mistaken and would show clearly that its supporter had not the smallest appreciation of the difficulties." For example, he became such an expert on conjuring that he was qualified to be a member of The Magic Circle, of which he became vice-president and founded their committee for investigating the occult.

At other times, he testified to observing such controversial phenomena as the production of ectoplasm by mediums. However, according to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, he was always reluctant to make public admission of the genuineness of phenomena that he had endorsed in private.

In a tribute by parapsychologist Guy Lyon Playfair (Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 54, no. 807), Ding-wall is quoted as stating (in a letter to Playfair in 1976), "We know practically nothing about the 'real' nature of the material world in which we live. We knew less 500 years ago. 500 years hence we may know a little more, but the more we peer into our surroundings the most indefinite becomes the boundary. The investigation of the relationship between matter and what you call spirit is only just beginning. Hardly any progress at all has been made since Myers laid down the guide rules in 1903. Indeed, things seem to be more mysterious now than they were then. So I think that the best position is not to hurry. The scrap heap of science is high with discarded theories derived from insufficient experimentation."


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

Dingwall, Eric J. Ghosts and Spirits of the Ancient World. London: Kegan, Paul, 1930.