Joseph Gaither Pratt (1910–1979) was a pioneer American parapsychologist, an associate of J.B. Rhine at Duke University and later of Ian Stevenson at the University of Virginia. Although best known for his contributions to experimental parapsychology, Pratt also did important work with Mediums and poltergeist cases. Outside of parapsychology, he is known for studies of homing pigeons.
J. Gaither Pratt was born August 31, 1910, in Winston- Salem, North Carolina, into a farming family. He was the fourth of 10 children. He initially wanted to become a Methodist minister, a determination he held from childhood through college. He received his B.A. degree in 1931 and enrolled in Duke University’s School of Religion before he realized that he was “not quite suited to a profession in which the answers to the great questions of man and the universe are taken on faith.”
This was coincidentally the time that Rhine was beginning his experimental studies of ESP in Duke’s Department of Psychology (see Rhine Research Center), and Pratt soon found himself working there while studying for a Ph.D. degree in psychology. After Rhine published his book Extra-Sensory Perception in 1934, Gardner Murphy invited Pratt to New York to teach him about the new methods described there. Pratt spent two years with Murphy at Columbia University, at the end of which period Rhine asked him to return to Duke to join the Parapsychology Laboratory staff as a full-time researcher. That same year, 1936, Pratt received his Ph.D. degree in psychology and married Nellie Ruth Pratt, with whom he had three sons and a daughter.
Pratt worked at the Parapsychology Laboratory from 1937 to 1963, with a break during World War II, when he was assigned to the U.S. Navy’s Department of Personnel Research. His departure from Duke in 1963 was not pleasant. Rhine had announced that Pratt would succeed him as director of the Parapsychology Laboratory, but when the time came for his retirement, Rhine instead made arrangements to establish a research foundation off campus. Feeling strongly that parapsychology should be studied in a university setting, Pratt, who earlier had turned down a faculty appointment at Duke to continue his work with Rhine, submitted his resignation.
Thanks to CHESTER CARLSON, inventor of the Xerox photocopying process and a major benefactor of parapsychology, Pratt was soon provided a new position at the University of Virginia (UVA), working with Stevenson. Within two years of arriving at UVA as a research associate (the same position he had held at Duke), Pratt was made an assistant professor, advancing to become a full professor in 1973. He retired from UVA in 1976.
Pratt conducted his work with homing pigeons under grants from the Offi ce of Naval Research from 1952 to 1953. The navy wanted to know whether pigeons could be used to carry messages, but Pratt was more interested in determining whether their homing abilities were in some way related to ESP. His tests did not bear out this possibility, but they did help to advance knowledge of homing pigeon behavior.
In 1934 and 1935, while still a graduate student working in the Parapsychology Laboratory, Pratt was put in charge of studying the mediumistic communications of Eileen J. Garrett. The study of such material is typically a subjective matter, depending on the appraisal of sitters, but Pratt devised a method of judging Garrett’s statements objectively. He made records of the sessions with Garrett and then had all of these rated by each sitter.
In the 1935 series, sitters heard Garrett speaking in trance and thus might have been able to pick out which record was theirs, but this problem was eliminated in the 1936 series by having the sitters in another room, where they could not hear her. When he analyzed his data, Pratt found it supported a paranormal interpretation: Garrett’s readings were indeed appropriate to the sitter for whom they were intended. Moreover, the second series was the more evidential of the two, producing odds against chance of about 1,700,000 to 1. His report, published by the Boston Society for Psychic Research in 1936, was Pratt’s first publication in parapsychology.
Pratt later refined his methods for evaluating verbal test material, using a statistical procedure originally devised to assess responses to a mass ESP-test radio broadcast. In this procedure, called the Greville method, sitters score items as right or wrong for them, then all the scores on all items are judged against each other. A final version of this work was published in 1969 by the Parapsychology Foundation.
In 1958, Rhine sent Pratt and a young William G. Roll to Seaford, Long Island, to investigate poltergeist disturbances there (see SEAFORD Poltergeist). This was the first poltergeist case to be studied by the Parapsychology Laboratory and one of the first U.S. cases to receive serious attention. Rhine had become interested in poltergeists because they seemed to involve what he had come to call Psychokinesis (PK), the ability of the mind to affect the physical world. Rhine’s laboratory studies of PK had largely been confined to dice throwing, but the resemblance to poltergeists was clear. Taking account of this, Pratt and Roll invented the term “recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis” (RSPK) to describe poltergeist cases. Several years later, in 1967, Pratt again teamed with Roll to study the MIAMI Poltergeist.
At least in his published statements, Pratt remained agnostic on the question of Survival After Death. He did, however, suggest that it might be more productive to assume survival rather than Super-PSI, if the choice came down to those alternatives. And he believed that the final judgment on Stevenson’s research on children who remember previous lives might well be a recognition that Reincarnation occurs. From its inception in 1962 until his death, Pratt served as president of the Psychical Research FOUNDATION, an organization run by Roll and devoted to survival research.
Besides conducting experiments and field investigations, Pratt was an active administrator. He managed much of the day-to-day activity at the Parapsychology Laboratory during the years that he was there and was on the editorial board of Journal of Parapsychology. In the 1970s, he was also a trustee of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) and chairman of its Publications Committee. He was a founding member of the professional Parapsychological Association and its president in 1960.
Pratt died on November 3, 1979, of an apparent heart attack while at home on his farm outside Charlottesville, Virginia. A few years before, he had set a combination lock (see Survival Tests), creating a mnemonic phrase to remind himself of the combination. He refrained from writing this down, lest someone discover it or learn it through Clairvoyance, but every year until he died he opened the lock based on the mnemonic phrase. If he survived death, his plan was to communicate this phrase through a medium. To date, however, the lock remains closed.
- Berger, Arthur S. Lives and Letters in American Parapsychology: A Biographical History, 1850–1987.
- Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1988. Keil, Jürgen, ed. Gaither Pratt: A Life for Parapsychology. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1979.
- Pratt, J. Gaither. Parapsychology: An Insider’s View of ESP. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964.———. On the Evaluation of Verbal Material in Parapsychology. Parapsychology Foundation Monographs, No. 10. New York: Parapsychology Foundation, 1969.