Sidgwick, Eleanor Mildred Balfour (1845–1936) Mathematician and educator, for many years principal of the first women’s college in Cambridge, and a leading figure in the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). A member of the Balfour Family, she was married to the philosopher Henry Sidgwick, whose intellectual qualities and interests she shared.
Eleanor Balfour Sidgwick was born March 11, 1845, at the Balfour family estate at Wittinghame, East Lothian, Scotland, not far from the border with England. She was the eldest of eight surviving children. Her father died in 1856, when she was nine, and her mother followed him in 1872. Eleanor, who was 27 at the time of her mother’s death, inherited the management of Wittinghame.
Eleanor had been educated at home, there then being limited opportunities for the formal education of women in Britain. Both her parents, however, supported education and professional work for women, and she was encouraged in her study of mathematics, for which she showed a special aptitude. In her twenties, she collaborated with her brother-in-law, Lord Rayleigh, in experimental work on electrical standards of measurement, and she published three Scientific papers with him.
Like other members of the Balfour family, she was interested in psychical phenomena, and she was part of a group formed in 1874 to investigate Spiritualism claims. It was through this group that she met Henry Sidgwick, whom she married in 1876. The couple were brought together not only by their mutual interest in Mediumship, but by their commitment to women’s education. Although her husband was elected the SPR’s first president when the society was founded in 1882, Sidgwick herself did not become actively involved for two more years.
She was otherwise occupied with Newnham College, the first women’s college at Cambridge, established on Henry Sidgwick’s initiative in 1871. Eleanor Sidgwick served as treasurer of Newnham from 1876 to 1919, as vice principal from 1880 to 1892, and as principal from 1892 to 1910. Sidgwick’s career at Newnham makes her contributions to the SPR even more impressive. She more than made up for her delay in joining the society, becoming active in research and writing and later serving in several official capacities. She edited the SPR Journal and Proceedings from 1888 to 1897.
Sidgwick reviewed the research of the group to which she had belonged in the 1870s in a paper, “Results of a Personal Investigation into the Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism,” published in the SPR Proceedings in 1886. She concluded that although work such as that of Sir William Crookes with D.D. Home lent support to the possibility of paranormal physical abilities, in her personal experience she had encountered a great deal of trickery, and she judged the majority of published studies of mediumship to be substandard in design and reporting.
Sidgwick helped to compile cases for Phantasms of the Living (1885) and several years later, in 1918, published a one-volume abridgment. This was followed in 1922 by a long paper in the SPR Proceedings summarizing similar cases received by the society since the original publication of the book.
Among Sidgwick’s most noteworthy analytical achievements was her book-length discussion of Leonora Piper’s Mediumship, which appeared in the SPR Proceedings in 1915. In this influential paper, she marshalled evidence that Piper’s Controls behaved more like secondary personalities than independent discarnate entities. These same controls, however, often showed paranormal knowledge of events in the lives of the persons with whom they purported to be in contact, which Sidgwick interpreted as exercises of ESP on Piper’s part. She discounted a survival interpretation.
Sidgwick was elected to the SPR’s governing council in 1901 and served as its secretary from 1907 until her death in 1936. She was president in 1908 and 1909 and again in 1932, on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the society, when she was made president of honor jointly with Sir Oliver Lodge. These various positions allowed Sidgwick to exercise a strong influence over the SPR for much of her life. This was the more true because many of the early leaders of the society had died by the turn of the 20th century: Edmund Gurney in 1894, Henry Sidgwick in 1900, and Frederic W.H. Myers in 1901.
Her early experiences investigating physical mediumship proved to be formative in her attitudes toward such claims; many psychical researchers, not to mention Spiritualists, believed that her opposition to reports of such phenomena in SPR publications amounted to prejudice.
For much of her life, Sidgwick was also skeptical about whether there was Survival After Death, but she seems to have changed her mind in her last years. Her brother Gerald Balfour read her acceptance speech for her second SPR presidency in 1932, at the close of which he said that he had been authorized to state that, while belief did not constitute proof, nevertheless Sidgwick had been brought by her long study of the evidence to a belief in survival.
Sidgwick died February 10, 1936, at her family home in Scotland. She was 91.
- Alvarado, Carlos. “The History of Women in Parapsychology.” Journal of Parapsychology 53 (1989): 233–49.
- Gauld, Alan. The Founders of Psychical Research. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968.
- Haynes, Renee. The Society for Psychical Research, 1882–1982: A History. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1982.
- Inglis, Brian. Science and Parascience. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1984.
- Sidgwick, Eleanor. Mrs. Henry Sidgwick: A Memoir by Her Niece. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1938.