Thomas, John F(rederick)

Thomas, John F(rederick) (1874–1940) Detroit psychologist, teacher and school administrator who was the first person to receive a Ph.D. in parapsychology from a U.S. university. His dissertation was a study of communications he had received from his deceased wife through Gladys Osborne Leonard and other Mediums.

John F. Thomas was born July 22, 1874, in Parker City, Pennsylvania. He attended the University of Michigan, receiving his M.A. in 1915, and made a career teaching in the Detroit school system. He married Ethel Louise Gammon in 1898; she died in 1926, and Thomas, who had been interested in psychic phenomena for some 30 years, set about trying to contact her.

At the suggestion of a friend, he visited Minnie Meserve Soule, a Boston medium then working with the Boston Society for Psychic Research. Thomas considered his sittings with Soule so successful that he decided to conduct a series of controlled experiments with her and other mediums. He subsequently sat with Eileen J. Garrett and Leonard, among others. None of the mediums he consulted had met his wife, and none knew that he was the sitter; in fact, he sometimes used proxy sitters (see Mediumship) rather than going himself, yet the SĂ©ance records included many facts known only to him. He described this work in Case Studies Bearing Upon Survival (1926).

Thomas’s proxy sitters with Soule included J.B. Rhine and LOUISA E. RHINE, whom he asked, in September 1927, to take his records to William McDougall at Duke University in order to get McDougall’s appraisal of them. He also hired the Rhines to help in their analysis. His choice of research assistants was fortuitous, for it brought the Rhines and McDougall into contact and led, a few years later, to the founding of the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University (see Rhine Research Center).

Thomas began to take graduate courses under McDougall in 1928 and in 1933 received his Ph.D. for a dissertation entitled An Evaluative Study of the Mental Content of Certain Trance Phenomena (published by the Boston Society as Beyond Normal Cognition in 1937). For this study, Thomas concentrated on 24 sittings with Leonard, in only two of which he himself had been present. For the majority, Leonard had been in England, and he, in the United States. He supplemented these records with those of 501 other sittings with Leonard and other mediums, including those described in Case Studies.

Thomas’s method for assessing his material represented a major advance in the analysis of mediumistic communications. Thomas’s work provided an important stepping stone to later efforts, notably that of J.G. Pratt in a study of Garrett’s trance utterances. He first broke down the Séance transcripts into topics and points and evaluated them as to verifi able, unverifi able or inconclusive. The verifi able points he then judged as right or wrong. Of a total of 1,908 points from the 24 Leonard records, 89 were inconclusive and 99 unverifi able, leaving 1,720 verifi able, of which 1,587 (92.3%) were right.

Thomas then composed a questionnaire listing points from the records and had this completed by several people, including himself. By this means he was able to determine to what extent statements were specific to him. Finally, he presented points from the records to two committees and had them estimate the general proportion of people for whom these items would be true. Both of these latter checks showed that the sittings were much more appropriate to Thomas than to anyone else, thus supporting the conclusion of paranormality.

Thomas was superintendent of schools in Detroit when he died November 21, 1940, in Orchard Lake, Michigan, from injuries suffered in an auto accident. He had continued to hold sittings until his death and had begun to annotate the records of them. These last sittings were discussed by Edmund Gibson in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (SPR)and Tomorrow, a magazine published by Garrett’s Parapsychology Foundation.


  • Thomas, John F. Beyond Normal Cognition. Boston: Boston Society for Psychical Research, 1937.


The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007