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Psychiatrist Explores World Beyond `Normal'
Psychiatric News
Volume 39 Number 23 page 21-21

FIG1 During the past 40 years, a University of Virginia psychiatrist named Ian Stevenson, M.D., has traveled around the world to study cases that are possibly paranormal—that is, phenomena that cannot be explained by natural processes and are not the result of deception.

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Ian Stevenson, M.D.: "My research has deepened my convictions about the possibility of life after death." 

Even today, at age 85, the tall, slender, and dignified Stevenson is pursuing this, his passion. In fact, he and his colleagues at the University of Virginia's Division of Personality Studies constitute one of the few paranormal investigative teams in the world.

Stevenson was born in Montreal, Canada. He attended McGill University medical school and graduated in 1943. His interest in internal medicine during his medical studies led him to an interest in psychosomatic medicine, which then prompted him to become a psychiatrist. While in training as a psychiatrist, he started reading journals concerning paranormal research.

"I thought, this is important, and not many people are doing it," Stevenson said during an interview in his office, which is located in a circa 1920 house on the edge of the University of Virginia grounds.

In 1957 the dean of the University of Virginia School of Medicine interviewed Stevenson for the position of chair of psychiatry there. "I was frank with the dean," said Stevenson. "I told him that I was interested in paranormal phenomena." The dean was not deterred by this interest, and Stevenson was offered the position.

In 1960 Stevenson wrote a paper about claims of memories of previous lives. Chester Carlson, the inventor of the Xerox process, and his wife, who believed in reincarnation, read the paper and offered to fund some of Stevenson's paranormal research. Then, in 1967, Carlson died and bequeathed $1 million to the University of Virginia so that Stevenson could continue his paranormal research.

Stevenson relinquished his position as chair of psychiatry and used the money from Carlson to establish the Division of Parapsychology in the University of Virginia's department of psychiatry. (Later this division was renamed the Division of Personality Studies.) Now Stevenson could not only pursue paranormal research full time, but also hire colleagues to assist him.


Out of the some 3,000 possibly paranormal cases that he and his coworkers have researched over the years, only several hundred cases appear to be strong in evidence, Stevenson pointed out. But these several hundred cases, he said, are indeed intriguing. He then described a few of them.

Back in the 1970s, for example, while under the influence of hypnosis, the wife of an Elkton, Va., minister—Delores Jay—assumed the personality of a latter 19th century German named Gretchen Gottlieb. Jay spoke fluent German whenever she assumed the Gretchen personality, although she had apparently never learned German nor had had any contact with someone who spoke it.

"I think most memories of previous lives recalled under hypnosis are fantasies," Stevenson said. "But this appears to be an exception because the subject was able to speak a foreign language that she had apparently not learned normally."

A Lebanese boy was convinced that he was a man who had died in a village at some distance from his own. The boy and his family had purportedly never met the deceased and his family.

Stevenson took the boy to the village where the dead man had lived, introduced the boy to relatives of the man, and told them that the boy thought that he was a reincarnation of the man. The relatives asked the boy where, in his previous life, he had kept his dog. The boy pointed to the right place. The relatives asked the boy what his sister in his previous life was called. He gave the correct name. The relatives asked him where, in his previous life, he had lain while dying from tuberculosis. He pointed to the correct location. And when the relatives asked him where, in his previous life, he had kept his gun hidden, he pointed to the right spot.

"The child knew details about the deceased man and his family that I'm sure he could not have learned normally," Stevenson said." Such cases are quite rare. We have only about 35 cases of that quality."

A woman who had just given birth developed a blood clot in her lungs. She became aware that she was looking down on her own body. She heard the nurses telling the doctor that she had died, as well as other parts of their conversation. Later, after she was revived, she told the nurses and doctor what she had heard. They confirmed that it was correct.

A mediumistic séance was held in Iceland. A dead person appeared to communicate with the medium. The deceased asked those present to look for a human leg in the house of one of the persons present. They did as bid, and indeed, they found a human femur wedged between the walls of the house. The femur, it turned out, belonged to a man who had drowned near the house.


Exploring and documenting such cases give Stevenson a deep sense of fulfillment. "It has been a pleasure working on the frontiers of knowledge," he said.

He enjoys sharing his discoveries with members of the Society for Scientific Exploration. These are scientists who are well established in their fields, say, in physics or astronomy, but who are also looking into various types of scientific anomalies or possibilities, such as UFOs or life in other solar systems.

Stevenson is grateful to Carlson for the bequest, which allows him to pursue such research. "Also, knowing Chester personally was such an enrichment in my life," Stevenson recalled. "He was a splendid person—amazingly modest, yet penetrating in his judgments."

Stevenson likes the publicity that he and his research have garnered in recent years. "The London Daily Telegraph wrote about me a few months ago," he said. "A reporter from the Washington Post traveled with me to India and wrote a book about my research, Old Souls: The Scientific Evidence for Past Lives. I get one or two letters a week from the public. Most of the letters I receive are favorable."


Nonetheless, paranormal research has its detractions, Stevenson admitted.

In the 1960s the president of the University of Virginia received mail from alumni protesting the establishment of a division of parapsychology at the university. "My wife was very distressed," Stevenson recalled." She said, `You're ruining a promising career. Why do you want to do this?'"

Most of Stevenson's paranormal findings have been published in specialty journals such as the Journal for Scientific Exploration and Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, although some have been published in more widely read publications such as the American Journal of Psychiatry and Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. Stevenson would now like to see some of his discoveries published in periodicals such as the Journal of the American Medical Association. Yet given the unconventionality of his research, achieving that goal is difficult, he said.

To date, the only researchers who have verified Stevenson's findings about children who remember past lives are people he has funded himself via the Department of Personality Studies. He would also like to see some of his findings confirmed by independent scientists.

Regarding his reputation in the psychiatric community, "Not a few psychiatrists suspected that I had become unhinged," Stevenson avowed.FIG2

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Above is the house on Wertland Street where Stevenson and his colleagues work. 


Still, not a few psychiatrists seem to be intrigued by his research. Some also have good words for it.

"I have read some of Ian Stevenson's work and am impressed by his persistent and patient-data gathering although I don't agree with his interpretations," Eugene Brody, M.D., told Psychiatric News. Brody is affiliated with Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Baltimore and editor in chief of the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease.

"Dr. Stevenson is a careful, meticulous researcher and scholar," Harold Lief, M.D., emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, said in an interview. "That makes his findings even more intriguing than if he were a rogue or charlatan.... He is positively obsessive in the way he goes about collecting data."

"His case histories concerning memories of previous lives are detailed and involve multiple informants," Paul Wender, M.D., a distinguished professor of psychiatry emeritus at the University of Utah, added. "The data for most are subject to critique because Dr. Stevenson usually contacts cases that have been reported in the past, and the accuracy of the reports is therefore dependent on the reliability of his informants' memories. Recently he has collected a series of cases in which children have made claims about a past life, and these claims have been recorded prior to the child's contact with his putative previous family. The family is subsequently contacted, and the accuracy of the child's claims determined. Many of these children's memories of another life are reported to have been correct. The accuracy of these reports is not dependent on the accuracy of informants' memories and avoids the critique I mentioned above."

Yet assuming that some of Stevenson's cases are authentic—that they cannot be explained either by natural processes or by deception—then what is the explanation for them? Brody, Lief, and Wender concurred that that is the critical question. So does Stevenson.

"My research," he said, "has deepened my convictions about the possibility of life after death."

More information on Stevenson's paranormal research is posted online at<www.healthsystem.virginia.edu/personalitystudies>.

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Ian Stevenson, M.D.: "My research has deepened my convictions about the possibility of life after death." 

Anchor for JumpAnchor for Jump

Above is the house on Wertland Street where Stevenson and his colleagues work. 

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