Karlis Osis (1917–1997) was a Latvian-born parapsychologist associated with the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) for most of his career. Osis had a strong interest in Survival After Death during a period when research in that area was out of fashion in parapsychology. He is perhaps best known for a book on deathbed visions he coauthored with Erlendur Haraldsson, a work inspired by an experience in childhood. At age 15, he was struck by tuberculosis, then a very serious disease, whose main cure consisted of bedrest. At dusk one evening his room was suddenly filled with light and a wave of joy swept over him. A moment later the door opened and a relative announced, “Auntie just died.”
Osis was born December 26, 1917, in Riga, Latvia, where he lived until the U.S.S.R. incorporated the country into its union following World War II. He fled to Germany. As a student at the University of Munich in the late 1940s, he read J.B. Rhine’s The Reach of the Mind. This prompted him to have his own set of ESP cards produced by a blueprint company, and in tests with fellow students, he got significant results. He wrote his doctoral dissertation (also at the University of Munich) on interpretations of ESP, defended it in 1950 and immigrated to the United States under a displaced persons program.
Osis was sent to work at a lumber mill in Tacoma, Washington, where, because of his poor English, he decided to try an ESP experiment with hens. He placed a small amount of grain on either end of a long plank and set a hen down in the middle of the plank. He then turned over a card in a well-shuffled pack of red and black cards and willed the hen to go to the corresponding end (left for red, right for black). When he later analyzed the results, he found that the hens had scored significantly above what would be expected by chance.
He sent the results of his experiment to Rhine at Duke University’s Parapsychology Laboratory (see Rhine Research Center) and in return received an invitation to join the staff to study ESP in animals. At Duke from 1951, Osis studied dogs and cats, deciding that cats had more psychic ability than did dogs. One of his pet subjects was a large white cat named Baltins, who insisted on being the first in any experimental session. When Osis chose him first, Baltins performed well, but when another cat went first, Baltins’s scores were poor. Osis’s research was written up in parapsychology journals and earned a picture in Life magazine.
In 1957, Osis left Durham to become director of research at the Parapsychology Foundation in New York. It was there, inspired by the childhood vision of his aunt, that he conducted the first of three surveys on deathbed VISIONS. In 1962, he moved across town to the ASPR where, with help from the bequest of James Kidd, he broadened his survey to include northern India. Haraldsson joined him in this phase of the project, and together they authored At the Hour of Death, which has since been translated into 10 languages, published in 12 countries and gone into a third edition in the United States. Based on more than 1,000 case reports collected from doctors and nurses, the book employed advanced statistical analyses and led to the conclusion that the apparitions the dying claim to see are best explained by the hypothesis that something survives death.
Osis worked at the ASPR as a Chester F. Carlson Research Fellow until his retirement in 1983 and thereafter until ill health forced him to quit. His last research project was designed to study if anything actually left the body during an out-of-body experience. His experiment required the exteriorized self to go to a specific spot and report on the nature of a randomly selected target picture there. At the same time, strain gauges were set up to detect something leaving the closed chamber in which the subject rested. Osis conducted 197 trials with the psychic Alex Tanous and found that the strain gauges were activated significantly more often during the trials in which Tanous correctly identified the target than during trials in which Tanous was wrong, thus confi rming the research hypothesis.
During his career, Osis also investigated mediums and apparition and poltergeist cases, in one of which there was no apparent living agent. He conducted important experiments on ESP over distance, ESP and the creative process, and the effect of relaxation and meditation on ESP scores.
Despite his often controversial choice of research subjects and conclusions, Osis was highly esteemed and honored in parapsychology. He served on the governing board of the professional Parapsychological Association (PA) at various times and was elected its president in 1961. In 1992, he received the PA’s Outstanding Career Award. In 1995 the Academy of Religion and Psychical Research (see Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship) held its annual conference in his honor, devoting it to research on the survival question. In 1997, Osis gave the ASPR’s annual Gardner Murphy Memorial Address, in which he argued for survival as a core vision of parapsychology. He died on his 80th birthday at his home in Montclair, New Jersey, leaving his wife and two children.
- Haraldsson, Erlendur. “In Memory of Karlis Osis.” Journal of Parapsychology 61 (1998): 253–55.
- Osis, Karlis. “Core Visions of Psychical Research: Is There Life after Death? A Cross-Cultural Search for the Evidence.” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (SPR)92 (1988): 241–55.
- Osis, Karlis, and Erlendur Haraldsson. At the Hour of Death. 3rd ed. Norwalk, Conn.: Hastings House, 1997.
- Pilkington, Rosemarie. Men and Women of Parapsychology: Personal Reflections. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1987.
- “Tributes to Karlis Osis.” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (SPR)92 (1988): 203–32.