Balfour Family

The Balfour family was a prominent Scottish family, several of whom were closely involved in the Society for Psychical Research (SPR).

Eleanor Balfour (1845–1936), the eldest of eight children, married Henry Sidgwick in 1876 and devoted much of her life to the SPR. Her biography is given in a separate entry (see Eleanor Mildred Balfour Sidgwick).

Arthur James Balfour (1848–1930), the first earl of Balfour, was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was a student of Sidgwick and met other members of the group who were to form the SPR’s inner circle. He devoted several years to metaphysical and philosophical studies, and he was vice president of the SPR from its inception in 1882 and its president in 1893. His political career gave him little time to devote to research, however. He first went to Parliament in 1876; he served as prime minister from 1902 to 1905 and as foreign minister from 1916 to 1922.

Arthur Balfour was the involuntary centre of the important mediumistic Palm Sunday Case, the details of which were made public only after his death.

Gerald William Balfour (1854–1945), the second earl of Balfour, also attended Trinity College, where he studied classics. He joined the SPR in 1883, the year after it was founded. He was elected to the House of Commons in 1885 but left politics after an electoral defeat in 1906. He devoted himself to the study of the complex, interlocking set of mediumistic communications known as the Cross Correspondences. He contributed several important papers on mediumship to the SPR’s Proceedings (including one on the famous Ear of Dionysius case), and served as president of the SPR in 1906 and 1907.

A sister, Evelyn, married Lord Rayleigh (John William Strutt), a Nobel Prize–winning physicist (1904) who also was active in psychical research (serving as president of the SPR in 1919).

A brother, Francis, an outstanding biologist, died in a mountaineering accident in the Swiss Alps in 1882. He appears in the psychical research literature as a communicator in the Palm Sunday Case and some other cross-correspondences.

Eleanor, Arthur, Evelyn and Lord Rayleigh took part in a group that included Henry Sidgwick, Frederic W.H. Myers and Edmund Gurney, formed in 1874 to investigate mediumistic phenomena. Although the SPR (founded in 1882) did not grow directly out of this group, it was an important forerunner of the SPR.


  • Gauld, Alan. The Founders of Psychical Research. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968.
  • Haynes, Renee. The Society for Psychical Research, 1882– 1892: A History. London: Heinemann, 1982.
  • Oppenheim, Janet. The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850–1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985



The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits – Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley  – September 1, 2007