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Sir William Crookes (1832-1919), a chemist and science journalist, was born in London, and began his scientific career at the age of sixteen when he entered the Royal College of Chemistry in Oxford Street, London. He worked largely on organic chemistry, chemical physics and meteorology.

Science and business were integrated activities throughout his life. By the 1880's he had made a comfortable living from his development and commercialisation of such ventures as the sodium amalgamation method of gold extraction, the chemical exploitation of sewage as a fertilizer, and also electric lighting.

He was eclectic in his interests, ranging over pure and applied science, economic and practical problems, and psychic research. He was a well-known name in the late Victorian scientific community. He was knighted in 1897 and in 1910 appointed to the Order of Merit. At various times he was president of the Chemical Society (1887–9), the Institution of Electrical Engineers (1890–94), the Society for Psychical Research (1897), the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1898), and the Society of Chemical Industry (1913).[1]

The most controversial aspect of Crookes's career was his investigation of mediums in the 1870's and 1880's. Historians such as Edmund Edward Fournier d'Albe (2014) have speculated (perhaps anachronistically) that it was following the death of a much-loved brother at sea that Crookes underwent some form of ‘profound spiritual crisis.’[2] Crookes began to attend séances, becoming interested in the kinetic, audible, and luminous phenomena that could be witnessed in fashionable demonstrations of the period. To the disgust of members of the scientific community such as W. B. Carpenter, J. Tyndall, and T. H. Huxley (but supported by A. R. Wallace), Crookes was persuaded that the mediumship of some practitioners was genuine.[3]

In 1871 he began tests on the medium Daniel D. Home involving two different forms of lever-based experiments, in an attempt to bring these physical phenomena under the reign of natural law.[4] Crookes reported that they observed and recorded scientifically inexplicable increases in the spring force in both experiments. On this experiment Crookes said: “The references I now give afford an answer to the statement that these results must be verified by others. They have been verified over and over again. Indeed, my own experiments may be regarded merely as verification of results already obtained and published by eminent scientific men in this and other countries.”[5] He became convinced that Home possessed a psychic force that could be used to modify gravity, produce musical effects, and perform feats unknown to science or conjuring. The Royal Society rejected his papers on the subject on the grounds that the experimental conditions were insufficiently exacting, so Crookes reported them in his own Quarterly Journal of Science. Crookes also supported the pretty young medium Florence Cook, who materialized a phantom called Katie King. He staked his very considerable scientific reputation on the validity of the extraordinary phenomena he described.[6]

In the first chapter of Crookes’ ‘Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism’ (1874) he made clear the issues with former attempts at the scientific study of spiritualism: “No observations are of much use to the student of science unless they are truthful and made under test conditions; and here I find the great mass of spiritualistic evidence to fail. In a subject which, perhaps, more than any other lends itself to trickery and deception, the precautions against fraud appear to have been, in most cases, totally insufficient, owing, it would seem, to an erroneous idea that to ask for such safeguards was to imply a suspicion of the honesty of someone present.”[7] This demonstrates his desire to apply his extensive scientific background to the honest study of such phenomena, and considered himself unique and valuable for doing so.

His ventures into psychical research were strongly criticized by contemporaries and certainly led him into some curious company, but they demonstrate that he thought all natural phenomena worthy of investigation, and that he refused to be bound by tradition and convention. He was certainly, for a time, a significant proponent of spiritualism. However rather than demonstrating a clear interest in uncovering the ‘spiritual meaning and message to humanity’ widely considered to be an element of modern spiritualism, it appears his focus tended toward scientific attempts to account for and explain supernatural phenomena within ‘natural law’.


[1]W. H. Brock, ‘Crookes, Sir William (1832–1919)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/32639, accessed 16 Feb 2017].

[2]Edmund Edward Fournier d'Albe, The Life of Sir William Crookes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014) p.177.

[3]W. H. Brock, ‘Crookes, Sir William (1832–1919)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/32639, accessed 16 Feb 2017].

[4]Edmund Edward Fournier d'Albe, The Life of Sir William Crookes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014) p.174.

[5]Masayoshi Ishida, ‘A Review of Sir William Crookes’ Papers on Psychic Force with Some Additional Remarks on Psychic Phenomena,’ Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 26, No. 1, 2012, p.11-12.

[6]W. H. Brock, ‘Crookes, Sir William (1832–1919)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/32639, accessed 16 Feb 2017].

[7]William Crookes, ‘Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism’ (London: The Quarterly Journal of Science, 1874) p.4-5.

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