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
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.
Barqu Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
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,
———. 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
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.