Barrett, Sir William F. (Jamaica, West Indies, February 10, 1844 – May 26, 1925)
While three Cambridge scholars – Henry Sidgwick, Frederic W. H. Myers, and Edmund Gurney – are usually credited with founding the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in 1882, it was Professor William Fletcher Barrett (February 10, 1844 – May 26, 1925) who suggested the organization. Because Barrett was living in Dublin, Ireland at the time, he apparently could not take an active part in the formation of the London-based society.
“When [in 1882], Professor Barrett consulted [William Stainton Moses] as to the possibility of founding a new society, under better auspices, he warmly welcomed the plan,” Myers explained in his 1903 book, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. “Edmund Gurney and I were asked to join, but made it a condition that the consent of Professor Sidgwick (with whom we had already been working) to act as our President should first be obtained.” Myers noted that a group known as the “Psychological Society” had been organized by Serjeant Cox, a London lawyer, but had dissolved with Cox’s death in 1879. The primary purpose of Cox’s group was to study the phenomena resulting from the mediumship of Stainton Moses, who was also interested in understanding his gift.
Barrett also encouraged Professor William James of Harvard to organize the American branch of the SPR in 1884. He edited the SPR Journal from 1884-99 and served as president of the organization in 1904.
Born in Jamaica, British West Indies, the son of a missionary, Barrett returned to Royston, Herfordshire, England with his parents at age four. He studied under the famous physicist, John Tyndall, serving at Tyndall’s assistant from 1862 to1867. He lectured on physics at the Royal School of Naval Architecture before becoming professor of physics at the Royal College of Science in Dublin in 1873. He taught at the Royal College for 37 years, retiring in 1910.
In 1899, Barrett developed a silicon-iron alloy known as stalloy, used in the commercial development of the telephone and transformers, and also did pioneering research on entoptic vision, leading to the invention of the entoptiscope and a new optometer. He was knighted in 1912 for his scientific contributions. He was a fellow of the Royal Society, Philosophical Society, Royal Society of Literature as well as a member of the Institute of Electrical Engineers and the Royal Irish Academy.
After hearing of the research of Professor William Crookes (later Sir William) with mediums, Barrett began to take an interest in psychic phenomena. “In 1874, I made my first acquaintance with the physical phenomena of Spiritualism, and was able to put to the test my preconceived theory of hallucination, which was gradually dispelled, and I became convinced of the objective reality of the phenomena,” Barrett explained his introduction to the subject.
Barrett, then 29, began experimenting with hypnosis, then more popularly known as “mesmerism.” He observed a young girl under hypnosis correctly identify a playing card randomly taken from a pack and placed in a book that was put next to her head. He also observed another hypnotized person correctly identify fourteen cards taken at random from a pack. As a scientist, he found such results very disturbing. However, while many of his scientific colleagues simply scoffed at anything paranormal, Barrett was open-minded and determined to find some rational and scientific explanation. As he explained his 1917 book On the Threshold of the Unseen, his prior theories really began to fall apart sometime in 1876 when a prominent English solicitor (lawyer) named Clark spent the summer at a residence near his in Dublin. Clark’s 10-year-old daughter, Florrie, produced various paranormal phenomena, including levitations and spirit “raps” that spelled out messages from an “intelligence” calling himself “Walter.”
As a result of his experiments in hypnosis and his investigation of Florrie Clark, Barrett prepared a paper to deliver to the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The Association rejected the paper as well as Barrett’s request to present it orally to the group. After Crookes (Chapter IV), Alfred Russel Wallace (Chapter III), and Lord Rayleigh protested the Association’s action, Barrett was allowed to deliver the paper but not publish it.
Barrett continued his investigation with other mediums, including Hester Travers Smith, Gladys Osborne Leonard, and Geraldine Cummins. In his 1917 book, he wrote:
“I am personally convinced that the evidence we have published decidedly demonstrates (1) the existence of a spiritual world, (2) survival after death, and (3) of occasional communication from those who have passed over… It is however hardly possible to convey to others who have not had a similar experience an adequate idea of the strength and cumulative force of the evidence that has compelled [my] belief.”
Barrett is also remembered for his study of dowsing and deathbed visions. His book, Deathbed Visions, published in 1926, the year after his death, is still popular today.
Several weeks after his death, Barrett’s wife, Lady Florence Barrett, a prominent, obstetric surgeon and Dean of the London School of Medicine for Women, began receiving very evidential messages from Sir William through the mediumship of Mrs. Leonard. Over the next eleven years, she sat with Leonard every few months, taking verbatim notes as Sir William communicated. She also sat with several other mediums. A book, Personality Survives Death, published in 1937 by Longmans, Green and Co. of London, resulted from these sittings.
Lady Barrett asked Sir William how she might satisfy people that she was really talking to him. He replied that it depends on the type of mind, commenting that reference to a tear in the wallpaper in his old room might satisfy some people and not others. Lady Barrett noted that a month before his death he had pointed out a tear in the wallpaper in one corner of his room. Sir William then said that some higher minds have gone well beyond the need for such trivial verification, mentioning another distinguished British physicist, still in the flesh, Sir Oliver Lodge. “Lodge is nearer the bigger, greater aspect of things than most,” he stated.
Sir William further explained that his objective in communicating with his wife was not simply to add to the mass of evidence already given concerning the survival of consciousness at death but to help find a working philosophy to guide those on earth who are struggling with finding a purpose in life. “It seems to me from where I am most people are not even struggling but meandering on purposelessly, blindly, because they have no definite philosophy as a starting point,” he said. He went on to say that knowledge of the afterlife opens the gates of inspiration and makes the intuition keener. With that comes greater enthusiasm, greater understanding of the beauties of life, even the perceiving of beauty where ugliness had appeared to exist.
“Life on my side seems so extraordinarily easy compared to earth,” Sir William offered in a 1929 sitting, “because we simply live according to the rules of love.”