McDougall , William

William McDougall (1871–1938) was a psychologist best remembered for his support for the Lamarckian theory of inheritance; also a strong proponent of Psychical Research and cofounder, with J.B. Rhine, of the parapsychology laboratory at Duke University.

William McDougall was considered one of the greatest psychologists of his day. He was a pioneer in physiological and social psychology and an adamant opponent of materialism. At a time when behaviorism was fast gaining momentum, he defended animism, vitalism and psychological dualism. He believed that all behavior was intrinsically goal-directed and that acquired characteristics could be inherited. His concerns made him a natural ally of psychical research, in which he saw potential support for many of his ideas. At the same time, his concept of personality, consisting of several streams that communicate with each other telepathically, held and continues to hold theoretical implications for that field, especially in the area of Survival After Death research.

McDougall was born on June 22, 1871, in Chadderton, Lancashire, England, close to the Scottish border, of Scottish parents. He was educated in England in biology and medicine and taught at the University of London and at Oxford, where he spent 15 years. In 1920 he accepted the position of professor of psychology at Harvard on the understanding that he considered psychical research second only to general psychology in his interests. McDougall’s exposure to psychical research began early. While he was a student at Cambridge in 1898 and 1899, he attended lectures by Henry Sidgwick, one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). McDougall himself soon joined the SPR, served on its governing council from 1913 and was elected its president in 1920. When he arrived in the United States later that year, he was elected president of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), making him the only person to have held the presidencies of both psychical research societies simultaneously.

At Harvard, McDougall conducted his famous series of experiments with white rats that seemed to support the Lamarckian theory of acquired characteristics. Also at Harvard, he activated the Hodgson Memorial Fund, set up in honor of Richard Hodgson, an early investigator with the ASPR, who died in 1905. A young Gardner Murphy was supported by this fund from 1922 to 1925.

At the ASPR, McDougall sought to strengthen the society’s academic credentials by, among other things, instituting an academic board of advisers. However, his actions did not sit well with many others on the board, and in January 1923, he was replaced by the Spiritualist Frederick Edwards.

Not long thereafter McDougall and his graduate student Harry Helson became the first of several to investigate the controversial Boston Medium Margery (see Crandon, Mina Stinson). They witnessed a variety of physical phenomena in a series of sittings over the summer and fall of 1923. On one occasion, the medium’s CABINET came apart while McDougall sat inside with Margery, trying to control her movements. On another occasion, they observed a stool jerking about the floor. Suspicious, Helson walked about the room after the Séance and discovered a piece of string that could have been used to move the stool. That brought the investigations to a sudden halt, and McDougall subsequently tried without success to get Margery to confess to fraud.

McDougall investigated Margery also as a member of a special committee established by Scientific American in a prize competition for displays of genuine mental and physical Mediumship. The committee included psychic investigator Hereward Carrington, illusionist Harry Houdini and Walter Franklin Prince, research officer of the ASPR, in addition to McDougall. After almost a year of sittings, the committee ruled against Margery, who nevertheless had gained support at the ASPR. When Edwards was elected to a second term as president in 1925, Prince had had enough. He gave in to pressure from McDougall and Murphy and moved to Boston to head up a rival society, the Boston Society for Psychic Research.

Although he was on the governing council of the Boston society and helped to draft its constitution, his experience with the ASPR turned McDougall away from the psychical research societies, and he came to champion parapsychology as a field for university study. He did what he could along these lines at Harvard, but his real chance came in 1927 when he was hired by the new Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, to head its department of psychology.

McDougall accepted JOHN F. THOMAS as a graduate student working on a study of trance mediumship (in 1933, Thomas received the first Ph.D. degree in parapsychology awarded by a U.S. university), and through Thomas he came into contact with J.B. Rhine and LOUISA E. RHINE, who were working as Thomas’s research assistants at the time.

With McDougall’s support, J. B. Rhine was hired as a professor of psychology and began doing ESP card tests. By 1935, Rhine’s operation had grown so large that it moved out of the psychology department into separate quarters, where it became known as the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University (see Rhine Research Center). Always an active supporter of Rhine’s research, McDougall became coeditor of the Journal of Parapsychology when it was launched in 1937 and wrote an editorial for the first issue. McDougall died of cancer on November 28, 1938, in Durham.

Of his several books, the one of greatest interest to parapsychology is Body and Mind: A History and Defense of Animism (1911), in which Cross Correspondences and other material from psychical research are used to support an argument for mind-body dualism. He developed these views further in his presidential address to the SPR, in which he presented his thoughts on the monadic nature of human personality.


  • Berger, Arthur. Lives and Letters in American Parapsychology: A Biographical History, 1850–1987. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1988.
  • Mauskopf, Seymour, and Michael McVaugh. The Elusive Science: Origins of Experimental Psychical Research. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.
  • McDougall, William. “Presidential Address.” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR)80 (1920): 105–23.
  • Pleasants, Helene. Biographical Dictionary of Parapsychology. New York: Helix Press, 1964.
  • Tietze, Thomas R. Margery. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.


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