The last message of a survival researcher

Leslie Price

Leslie Price reports on a final letter from psychical researcher the late Professor David Fontana.

On October 18, Professor David Fontana, perhaps the UK’s leading survival researcher, passed away.

One of his last writings was a commendation of the autobiography of medium Stewart Alexander, featured in the first issue of SPN. But members of the Society for Psychical Research, of which he had served a term as president, have now read a letter from David in their Journal for October 2010. This makes some important general remarks on physical mediumship.

David Fontana

The occasion is a review by another researcher in the same JSPR issue of Robin Foy’s book Witnessing the Impossible. The book tells the story of the Scole group which experienced remarkable phenomena in the 1990s, and triggered the most substantial SPR investigation of physical phenomena for many years.

Fontana re-affirms his belief in the outstanding Scole phenomena, and praises the welcome given to researchers by the circle. He also tries to clear up a possible misunderstanding about infra-red viewers in the group, which had been requested by two of the SPR team, Montague Keen and Arthur Ellison.  This was “due to their desire to forestall attacks by sceptics rather than any lack of conviction on their own part.”

Fontana did not seek infra-red viewers, which the spirit communicators did not in any case permit because (they explained) they  would be a distraction. It might disturb the harmony and positive focus, resulting in what David called “perhaps total inhibition of the production of the phenomena if the investigators had turned their attention to peering through an infra-red viewer.”

Moreover, the researchers were guests; their duty was to fit in as best as possible, and then in any written report to describe the conditions clearly, so that readers could make up their own minds.

Those involved in psychical research, Fontana suggests, are not there primarily to collect evidence with a view to convincing sceptics, some of whom won’t be convinced. “The task of psychical research is to collect and publish evidence, and leave others to make of it what they will.” Even with infra-red viewers, some sceptics would still not be convinced.

Actually, it is not only those familiar targets, the sceptics, who may be unhappy about such a collection of evidence. It was quite clear from the Noah’s Ark Review, and from more recent comments, that some Spiritualists were far from happy about claims made in the Scole case.

There may even be Spiritualists who have some sympathy for a remark made to me recently by an experienced  student of physical mediumship not connected with the Scole case: “The really great mediums (Dunglas Home, the Schneiders, Ossowiecki, Garrett, Piper, Leonard) were never heard whingeing about the ‘dangers’ of light of any kind. They just got on with it and welcomed investigation.”

Arthur Ellison himself, as an engineer, used to point out that central heating radiators produce quite a bit of infra-red radiation without sitters or mediums being harmed.

But is it possible that Professor Fontana is being too pessimistic? There have been some complex problems in science that have resisted solution for many years, but eventually been resolved.

The physiological processes involved in ectoplasm are currently mysterious, but some instrumental record of how they take place is unavoidable if they are to be understood.  It is that understanding which is of central scientific significance. If we have come to appreciate how the body works generally, the biochemistry of ectoplasm will surely be made clear one day.

Since the 1990s, of course, unobtrusive monitoring of environments has advanced enormously. Séance room monitoring can now be arranged in which the sitters in the room need pay no attention to any recording arrangements.

The purpose of a scientific programme investigating such mediumship is indeed not to convince the sceptics, but to understand better what is happening, not least what conditions enhance the power. The fluctuations of such power, and the occasional interference with the message, have been major weaknesses in mediumship.

So Spiritualists have an interest in seeing mediumship being better understood, as it can lead to better mediumship. During the 1930s, UK Spiritualists led the world in their employment of the latest technology to study mediumship.

Perhaps the signs of decline in the movement, brought vividly home in 2010, could be reversed by a new marriage of science and mediumship?

Supposing the SAGB, during its prosperous years in Belgrave Square, had devoted just five per cent of its budget to a scientific programme to understand and improve its main product, mediumship?


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7 responses to “The last message of a survival researcher

  1. Phil Hotchkin

    What the Spiritualist movement needs is convincing evidence to prove the existence of spirit phenomena. The only way to obtain this is by independent psychical researchers attending closed seance sessions to see actual physical phenomena take place and film it with infra red cameras. The Scole experiment in the 1990s missed a golden opportunity to prove this but would not allow cameras or recording equipment into the room. With this evidence it would have proved beyond doubt that there is a spirit world and Spiritualist Mediums are not nutters or freaks talking to the dead. Until someone does this and produces undeniable proof we will continue to be labelled as such and branded devil worshippers by the Christian and Roman Catholic church.

  2. Very good article thanks Leslie. Yes it is time Spiritualists returned to research and that we began to use modern technology to help us.

    Without the work of those pioneer mediums you mention (and several other notable people) plus their researchers we would have no record at all of any genuine phenomena for us to rely upon. We would have just the written testimony of people’s experiences from Dark Circles.

    It is always worth remembering that both Emma Hardinge Britten and the great DD Home were very active in their opposition to dark séances for very clear reasons that they specified.

    Some of the test conditions early mediums faced were truly horrendous. Stripped, examined internally, sown up in bags and placed in cages. Needles pushed into their skin, drawing blood, to prove they were really in trance. Yet many agreed to all these conditions and still produced phenomena.

    I am sure that these pioneers would love to use the technologies that are available now rather than the methods of the medieval torture chamber used then. In the case of physical mediumship the most obvious development is the extension of infra red to thermographic imaging. This is a passive recording of the heat generated from objects, in an entirely non-intrusive way, which has already been utilised in food processing and in animal diagnostics by vets. Of itself this could lead to the removal of any need to restrain the medium, allowing them considerable extra comfort. Any movement from the chair would be recorded as would the image of any ectoplasm that builds up. Additionally the movement of objects or people in the room would have a clearly defined record.

    Not a cheap option but then the infra red process, used widely before and after World War 2, was not cheap either. Given the evidence that this process, used wisely, caused no problems, it is sad to think that the last pictures taken using infra red that are publicly available seem to be from the wonderful Minnie Harrison Circle over 50 years ago. The modern technology would seem to offer far better research potential, by recording an entire Circle, with even less risk.

    • Jim hit the nail on the head. Lots of past physical mediums took part in tests and were none the worst for it. Now with the new passive cameras which don’t emit, what is there to fear? And sadder, why is it that todays mediums have no interest in finding out about the way their mediumship works? They could learn so much from the attitudes of earlier times where great mediums were fascinated by what could be learned from science. So many seems stuck in their own private groove. Its a sad reflection on what the movement has become. Long ago, learning more about the way spirit work with our world was a sign of an inquiring intelligent mind. What are the modern ones afraid of?

  3. Why were the Spiritualists involved with the Noah’s Ark Review so hostile to Scole? There’s a lot of negativity regarding Scole amongst some Spiritualists and I don’t understand why. Fontana presented a convincing case that the phenomena was genuine. Is the negativity the result of a clash of personalities? Was there something about Scole that was viewed as a threat to Spiritualism?

    • Many of the members of the Noah’s Ark Society attended the Scole sittings. Unfortunately I missed by a few weeks. The reports I heard were all favourable. I feel that the antipathy may have been due to some personal difficulties on the part of the editor and the leader of the Scole Group.

  4. Terry Gardener

    I think the sad part of reaction to the Scole experiments was jealousy! Mainly on the part of those who were not included in the experiments…
    Any serious Spiritualist would have loved to have been involved in, or to have been invited to take part in such a serious but illuminating experience. Imagine being able to actually speak to or even touch, beings of another dimension! Especially beings who could prove without shadow of doubt that there was indeed life after physical death! Beings who not only had lived a physical existence but could give evidence to prove it!
    All this guff about needing cameras and such like is all very good but given the evidence and a little bit of research the truth of it should suffice… but as is always the case, it is not enough, more is required, then more and then more! Doubting minds are never satisfied.
    There is reams and countless reams of bona-fide evidence in the public domain… sworn affidavits as to the veracity of the phenomena that took place and yet we still have doubters.
    Believe me (of course you won’t) no matter what technology is involved people will still cast doubt on the evidence provided…
    I believe that it is for each to find their own evidence… ‘those who have eyes to see let them see! and those who have ears to hear, let them hear!’
    I have been lucky enough to have sat in a physical circle with a good, dedicated unsung physical medium, who chose not to take his mediumship ‘on the road’ as it were. For over twenty years of dedicated sitting we were privileged to meet with Spirit and enjoy the upliftment and peace that it brought to us…proof enough for me!
    So instead of constant carping about it, go about seeking for your own proof! Seek and ye shall find, ask and you shall be given! They may be quotes from a religion that I do not adhere to but Truth is truth wherever you find it.

  5. I am not surprised by the attitude of exponents of mediumship as to the understanding of their mediumship. It seems they are satisfied with the status quo. Eileen J Garrett was very passionate about finding out about her mediumship. I decided to find out why my mediumship works. I started with reading as to understanding why consciousness is so important to the working of Mediumship and I have travelled through many subjects which have surprised, some you would not think had to do with Spiritualism. I have had adventures within subatomic physics which intimate a link with phenomena of Psi and mediumship. I am still learning. It has taught me that there are many mansions in the universe and has opened my horizons. I am sure there must others who have curiosity about their gift and do not sit on their laurels.

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