Louisa Ella Weckesser Rhine (1891–1983) was an American parapsychologist, wife and professional partner of J.B. Rhine. Unlike her husband, who became famous for his experimental research into Extrasensory Perception (ESP) and Psychokinesis (PK), Louisa Rhine is best known for her analysis of spontaneous case accounts, including those of Apparitions.
Louisa Rhine was born Louisa Weckesser on November 9, 1891, in Sanborn, New York, an island in the Niagara River just above Niagara Falls. She was the first of nine surviving children of an Ohio truck farmer and his Mennonite wife. She was born near her mother’s hometown but moved to her father’s soon after.
She met her future husband when her father rented out part of the family farm to the Rhine family. Both had an intellectual bent, and they found they enjoyed each other’s company. They were separated during World War I, when he served in the U.S. Marines, but they met again when he returned home in 1919. They were married the following year. He joined her at the University of Chicago, where she was then studying. She received her B.S. degree in 1919 and then took up graduate studies in botany, obtaining her Ph.D. in 1923. J.B. received his Ph.D. in the same field in 1925. After only three years working and teaching in botany, however, the Rhines changed direction, committing themselves to psychical research (as parapsychology was then known).
By late 1927 they were at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where William McDougall was the chairman of the new Department of Psychology (see J.B. Rhine entry for the story of this transitional period). Rhine began working with her husband conducting experiments; when she became pregnant, however, she began to spend most of her time at home, and only after the last of her four children were in school, did she return to work full time. During this period, however she was never uninvolved. In 1937 she published the firstever Extrasensory Perception (ESP) experiments with children, and in 1943 she was the first author of the first published paper on dice-throwing psychokinesis (PK) tests.
At her husband’s suggestion, Rhine took up the study of spontaneous cases in 1948. By that date, the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke had received some 15,000 accounts of apparent paranormal events in unsolicited letters. Moreover, lab workers had noted that in ESP card tests, percipients rarely had a sense of whether they had guessed correctly, whereas in these spontaneous cases the percipients nearly always had a sense that their experience was important and meaningful.
Faced with such an enormous undertaking, Rhine chose not to investigate the cases, as had been standard practice since the founding days of the London-based Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Instead, she accepted them at face value. Since it had long been known that investigating cases both helped weed out ones with normal explanations and enriched truly paranormal ones by adding details to them, this approach came under considerable criticism. Rhine responded by saying that she was not trying to determine the truth value of individual cases, only to find patterns across all the cases that might suggest avenues to be pursued in experimental research. There is no evidence that this was ever done, however, and, critics alleged, Rhine drew increasingly sophisticated conclusions from her case collection.
Rhine’s basic claim was that her cases suggested that the percipient, not the agent, was the key figure in ESP and apparition cases. The terms “percipient” and “agent,” in use since the earliest days of psychical research, presumed the agent was responsible for “sending” the content of an ESP experience to the percipient. Rhine preferred instead the terms “experience person” and “target person,” which she held to be more refl ective of the psi process. Critics, however, charged Rhine’s hypothesis was only a consequence of her method, since most of her cases were sent in by the percipients and contained little or no information about the conditions, states of mind or actions of the agents, apart from what was conveyed in the experience itself.
Moreover, critics pointed out, Rhine stacked the deck in favour of her hypothesis by disallowing from her test sample cases in which the agent attempted to “project” him- or herself to the percipient (see Out-of-Body Experience [OBE]), on the grounds that these were semi-experimental rather than spontaneous cases. She also arbitrarily classified cases of ESP between strangers as coming from the percipient, although they could as well have come from the agent. She even went so far as to argue that 104 cases that suggested actions by the agent were coincidental, whereas 10 cases in which the agent was not thinking about the percipient at the time of the experience supported her active-percipient model.
Rhine’s model of psi processing was based on the twostage model of G.N.M. Tyrrell. In this view, the ESP signal is picked up by the percipient, then elaborated by the percipient in line with common psychological mechanisms. However, unlike Tyrrell, Rhine believed that apparitions could be explained as ESP-conditioned hallucinations on the part of the percipients, without any active input from the agents. In this, her position was similar to that advanced by Edmund Gurney in Phantasms of the Living.
Rhine’s view of the psi process was controversial because it undermined one of the main lines of evidence for Survival After Death. If the percipient alone was responsible for spontaneous cases, then there was no need for agent involvement, so cases such as apparitions of the dead and events (such as falling pictures) occurring at the time of death provided no support for the survival hypothesis. (The falling pictures could have been the result of the percipient’s PK.) Nothing is known about Rhine’s beliefs about survival, but from her writings it is clear that she had greater doubts than did J. B. It seems safe to assume that the bad experiences she and J. B. had with mediums in the 1920s either turned her against survival or solidifi ed prior doubts. Rhine’s approach to analyzing spontaneous cases, as well as her theoretical models, have nevertheless become commonplace in parapsychology.
In 1981, Rhine served as president of the Society for Psychical Research, only the third woman and one of the few Americans to have held that position. After her husband’s death, Rhine succeeded him as director of the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man (see Rhine Research Center) and editor of the Journal of Parapsychology.
Besides publishing numerous papers in the Journal of Parapsychology, Rhine wrote several books for a general audience: Hidden Channels of the Mind (1961) ESP in Life and Lab (1967), Mind over Matter (1970), Psi: What Is It? (1975) and The Invisible Picture (1981).
Rhine died of a heart attack on March 17, 1983. Her final book, Something Hidden, the story of J. B. Rhine and her life with him, was published posthumously later that year.
- Berger, Arthur S. Lives and Letters in American Parapsychology. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1988.
- Coly, Lisette, and Rhea A. White, eds. Women and Parapsychology. New York: Parapsychology Foundation, 1994.
- Rao, K. Ramakrishna. Case Studies in Parapsychology: Papers Presented in Honor of Dr. Louisa E. Rhine. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1986.
- Rhine, Louisa E. The Invisible Picture: A Study of Psychic Experiences. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1981.———. Something Hidden. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1983.