Joseph Banks Rhine (September 29, 1895-February 20, 1980) was the founder and director of the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University, often called the father of modern parapsychology. He believed that the limits of Extrasensory Perception would have to be established before any meaningful work could be done on the problem of Survival After Death, but he never lost a personal interest in the latter.
J.B. Rhine was born on September 29, 1895, in a log house in the Pennsylvania Mountains. From his childhood he heard many stories of omens, warnings and messages from the unseen agencies, although his skeptical father taught him to dismiss them as so much superstitions nonsense. When he was about 12, He had a religious experience and decided on a life in the ministry; he held this determination until he met Louisa Ella Weckesser, his future wife, whose critical attitude to religion gradually brought him to question his faith.
Rhine served in the Marines from 1917 to 1919. He and his wife Louisa were married in 1920. He began to study biology and plant physiology, preparing for a career in forestry. He received his Ph. D in botany form the University of Chicago in 1925; His wife had received her PhD in the same subject from the institution two years earlier. But Rhine did not find botany satisfying: more and more his mind turned to psychic experiences. The Rhines had heard Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lecture in Chicago in 1922, and his claim to be in touch with his deceased son made Rhine wonder whether psychical research might provide the way of establishing proof of a nonphysical world.
Rhine joined the American Society For Psychical Research in 1924 and in 1925 began to abstract foreign-language publications for the ASPR’s Journal. The Journal at this time was under the editorship of J. Malcolm Bird and was printing many stories of the Boston medium Margery. Joseph was enough impressed by what he read to want to conduct his own research with Margery. Boston was across the river from Cambridge and Harvard, where William McDougall, a prominent figure in psychical research. It was partly with the idea of investigating Margery that the Rhines left Morgantown in June 1926 and moved to Boston.
On July 1 the Rhines had a sitting with Margery which left Rhine badly disillusioned. He had seen the medium kick a megaphone within reach of her hand in the dark, and when he checked a balance after the Séance he found that the weight had been moved so that the “wrong” side would go down. He quickly wrote to the ASPR about what he had seen; later he resigned his membership in the society.
The Rhines had based their decision to leave Morgantown partly on a belief in Bird’s presentation of the mediumship, Louisa wrote in Something Hidden (1983), her book on their life together, but now suddenly everything was up in the air. They had reached Cambridge to find McDougall leaving for sabbatical, and the Crandon mediumship had turned to be a fraud. Fortunately, there was Walter Franklin Prince at the Boston Society For Psychic Research.
Prince had left his position as research officer with the ASPR partly because he too, was skeptical of the Crandon Mediumship. He arranged for the Rhines to have sittings with a mental Medium, Minnie Meserve Soule, on behalf of a Detroit school administrator, John F. Thomas, who was working on his doctorate under McDougall. Thomas, in turn, arranged for the Rhines to go to Duke University in the fall of 1927 to assist him in his data analysis. Duke had hired McDougall away from Harvard after his sabbatical.
Rhine at first worked as a research assistant to McDougall as well as Thomas. He stayed on to teach psychology after Thomas received his Ph. D, and in the fall of 1930 he and McDougall, along with others in psychology department, began the ESP experiments that would make the Parapsychology Laboratory world famous. The association with Prince now had another benefit Prince edited and the Boston Society published Rhine’s monograph Extra-Sensory Perception (1934), in which he reported the results of those early experiments.
The Soule sittings they had conducted for Thomas had been interesting, but the Rhines disagreed with Thomas had over their interpretation. Thomas believed that these and other of his séance communications were genuine messages from his deceased wife, whereas the Rhines thought they could be explained on the basis of the medium’s ESP. The debate was an old one, going back to the beginnings of the Society For Psychical Research (SPR) in London in 1882.
But Rhine had not lost his personal interest in the survival problem. In a series of books and lectures, as well as scientific papers and editorials published in the Journal of Parapsychology, which he founded at Duke in 1937, he was quick to point out that ESP supported a dualistic separation of body and mind. And if body and mind were separate, then in theory the mind should be able to survive the body’s death. Until the limits of ESP were established, however, he believed there was no scientific way of pursuing the survival problem.
The Parapsychology Laboratory continued in operation at Duke until Rhine’s retirement in 1965, when he moved it off campus to the new Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man, where it is still in existence. Rhine died on February 20, 1980, at his home in Hillsborough, North Carolina.
Berger, Authur S. Lives and Letters in American Parapsychology, Jefferson, N.C. :McFarland, 1988.
Brian, Dennis. The Enchanted Voyager: The Life of J. B. Rhine. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. : Prentice-Hall, 1982
Matlock, J.G. “Cat’s Paw: Margery and Rhines, 1926.” Journal of Parapsychology 51 (1987): 229-247
Mauskopf, Seymour, and Michael McVaugh. The Elusive Science. Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1980
Rhine, Louisa E. Something Hidden. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1983
Rao, K. R., ed. J. B. Rhine: On the Frontiers of Science. Jefferson, N.C., McFarland, 1982