Academic journal article The Journal of Parapsychology

Michael A. Thalbourne: 1955-2010

Academic journal article The Journal of Parapsychology

Michael A. Thalbourne: 1955-2010

Article excerpt

The Editor has asked me to write this obituary for Michael Thalbourne, who was well known throughout the parapsychological community, because I worked with him during a critical period in his career. I am not a parapsychologist myself, and would have been quite unsuited for this task were it not for the help I have received from friends and colleagues of Michael, notably Carlos Alvarado, William Braud, and Lance Storm. Michael himself wrote a short autobiography that can be found at

Michael died on May 4, 2010, in hospital in Adelaide, Australia, at the age of 55. For more than 20 years he had suffered from bipolar disorder, and his constant struggle with that terrible affliction probably contributed to his early death, though the actual cause remains uncertain.

He first came across parapsychology during his years in high school, while going through a personal crisis of religious faith. During his undergraduate years at the University of Adelaide, he was able to design and carry out experiments in parapsychology, and his honors thesis based on that research earned him a prize in social psychology.

After a number of difficulties, all too familiar to parapsychologists, Michael went to the University of Edinburgh for graduate study. His supervisor was John Beloff, who welcomed him but also warned him about career difficulties that would surely follow if he persisted in the field. Michael had his mind made up, however, and continued with drawing reproduction experiments for his dissertation.

Following his PhD, Michael worked with Erlendur Haraldsson in Iceland and India, where he spent some time investigating the alleged paranormal phenomena associated with Sai Baba. He then moved to the McDonnell Laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis, which is where I first met him.

The McDonnell Laboratory was set up for a 5-year term at the request of J. S. McDonnell, the founder of the aircraft company, and a major influence on Washington University. He had hoped for a large research center, but the most eminent scientists at the university, predictably, refused to have anything to do with such an enterprise. In the end, only one faculty member, myself, a physicist, was willing to take on the task of directing the laboratory, and most of the funds that were intended for parapsychology were reassigned at that time to general use. It seemed quite likely to me that McDonnell, being 81 years of age, would die during the 5-year period, and the laboratory would then close, as I had no plans myself to devote my life to parapsychology. That is, in fact, just what happened.

For a man as self-motivated and hard working as Michael, this situation in St. Louis was perfect. But as many readers will remember, the laboratory was the main focus of James Randi's Project Alpha, in which two young magicians were sent to us claiming to have PK ability, but in fact to simulate such effects by trickery. By the time Michael arrived, only formal experiments with strict controls were under way, and he never saw anything that seemed to him to be paranormal. Randi went public with this project in 1983, judging, quite correctly, that the public would be fascinated by the hoax, but largely uninterested in the serious science.

When the laboratory closed in 1985, most of us left parapsychology and went our separate ways, putting Project Alpha behind us. This was not possible for Michael, who had long been committed to a career in parapsychology. He was deeply offended by the way Randi concentrated on our initial mistakes, and paid less attention to the process of science, by which errors are corrected. He recognized, as all of us at the laboratory did, that Randi was determined to attempt to discredit parapsychology by ridicule rather than by making a serious effort to confront the best data. Michael's article in JASPR, "Science versus Showmanship" (Thalbourne, 1995), was his first attempt to redress the balance. …

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