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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
Nonetheless, paranormal research has its detractions, Stevenson
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
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
Above is the house on Wertland Street where Stevenson and his colleagues
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