Gardner Murphy (1895- 1979) Eminent psychologist and psychical researcher, often compared to William James in his academic stature and range of interests. As with James before him, his support of Psychical Research brought the field a visibility and status it probably would not have enjoyed otherwise.
Gardner Murphy was born on July 8, 1895, in Chilicothe, Ohio, but grew up in Concord, Massachusetts. His mother’s father was the Medium Leonora Piper’s attorney, and his parents, although evangelical Christians, were much interested in the work of James and Richard Hodgson at the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), then based in Boston. When he was 16, Murphy found Sir William Barrett’s Psychical Research (1911) in his grandfather’s library, and this stimulated in him a lifelong passion for the subject.
Murphy attended Yale, where, determined on a career in psychical research, he majored in psychology. He received his B.A. from Yale in 1916 and his M.A. from Harvard in 1917. His education had caused him to question the religious faith of his upbringing, but he decided to continue to pursue psychical research, which he had theretofore conceived of as a support for his religion, for its intrinsic interest.
World War I was then getting under way, and in 1917 Murphy joined the army and went to France. He also joined the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), and, upon being discharged in 1919, stopped by its office in London. The secretary kindly wrote out a list of books and articles which guided his reading after he returned to the United States and a doctoral program at Columbia.
So impressed was Murphy by his visit to the SPR that in 1922 he asked William McDougall, who was then at Harvard, what he thought were Murphy’s chances of obtaining a position at the university. McDougall responded by offering him the support of Harvard’s Hodgson Memorial Fund, set up by Hodgson’s friends to support psychical research following his unexpected death in 1905. Murphy applied for and was granted the money, and for the next three years he made numerous trips from New York to Cambridge to conduct research. During this period he had several sittings with Piper, some of the last of her career.
Murphy received his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1923 and, with the offer of a full-time teaching position there in 1925, gave up the Hodgson Fund support. He had already met his future wife, Lois Barclay, whom he married in 1926. She shared his strong interest in psychical research and admired him for going against the academic trend, but she persuaded him that he could help psychical research more by establishing himself in psychology than by committing himself entirely to the former field.
Murphy’s decision to redirect his energies toward mainstream psychology was also influenced by the unprecedented turmoil in American psychical research at the time. In 1925 control of the ASPR (in New York since 1907) passed into the hands of a liberal faction, and the society’s more conservative members left to found a rival Boston Society for Psychic Research. In sympathy with the defectors, Murphy accepted a seat on the council of the Boston Society, but he was little active in research for several years.
He did not move out of close contact with the field, however. When J.B. Rhine approached him about supervising J. G. Pratt, a Duke graduate student who had been working at the Parapsychology Laboratory, Murphy agreed, and Pratt spent the years 1935–37 in New York. Murphy also gave Rhine strong support at a meeting of the American Psychological Association in Columbus, Ohio in 1938, at which he and experimental psychical research (parapsychology) came in for a severe attack.
In 1940 Murphy accepted a position as chairman of the Department of Psychology at City College, a branch of the City University of New York. This new position brought a lighter teaching load, and he was able to devote more time to psychical research. In 1940 and 1941 he and Bernard Reiss of Hunter College edited the Journal of Parapsychology, which Rhine had established at Duke in 1937.
The situation at the ASPR changed in 1941; the liberal group who had run the society since 1925 were ousted in a “palace revolution.” Murphy became a vice president of the new board of trustees, and he began to spend mornings at the ASPR five or six days a week. He was a man with a vision, and his presence brought the ASPR a sense of purpose and direction it badly needed. The society began both to conduct experimental research and to collect and analyze reports of psychic experiences as they occurred in life.
Meanwhile, his stature in psychology also was increasing. He was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1944, and in 1950 the United Nations sent him to India to look into the growing unrest there. Upon his return, Murphy was offered a position as director of research at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas. He remained in this job until his retirement in 1968, when he and his wife moved to Washington, D.C., and he became a visiting professor at George Washington University.
Murphy was elected president of the SPR in 1949, and from 1962 to 1971 he served as president of the ASPR. In 1967 and 1968, while he was at the Menninger Foundation, he was instrumental in getting the estate of James Kidd for the ASPR and the Psychical Research Foundation.
Murphy died on March 18, 1979, in Washington, D.C. In his last years he had developed Parkinson’s disease, a nervous system disorder that made him unable to write or participate in many of the outdoor activities which he enjoyed.
He had contributed more than 100 articles to psychical research journals and many more to journals in mainstream psychology. He was the author or coauthor of numerous books, in many of which he sought to show the relevance of psychical research to psychology, particularly to social psychology and personality. He had a breadth and depth of knowledge in all these areas equaled by few if any of his peers.
Murphy’s experiences as an experimental investigator were disappointing, and he came to doubt the value of experimental psychical research. He believed that everyday psychic experiences were much more important, and although he never became satisfied that research on Survival After Death had Demonstrated this to occur, he nevertheless considered it a vital area of study.
Murphy’s last book on psychical research, The Paranormal and the Normal (1980), co-authored with Morton Leeds, was published shortly after his death. His other books include William James on Psychical Research, edited with Robert Ballou (1960), and Challenge of Psychical Research, written with Laura Dale (1961). A collection of his papers on psychology and parapsychology, edited by Lois Murphy, was published by McFarland in 1990.
- Berger, Arthur S. Lives and Letters in American Parapsychology: A Biographical History, 1850–1987. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1988.
- Murphy, Gardner. “Notes for a Parapsychological Autobiography.” Journal of Parapsychology 21 (1957): 165–78.
- Murphy, Lois B. “The Evolution of Gardner Murphy’s Thinking in Psychology and Psychical Research.” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 82 (1988): 101–14.
- Osis, Karlis. “The American Society for Psychical Research (SPR)1941–1985: A Personal View.” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (SPR)79 (1985): 501–30.
- “Tributes Honoring the Memory of Gardner Murphy.” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (SPR)74 (1980): 1.
Edited and revised for the Web by Occult Media, the 19th of April 2021. We use British English spelling.