Edmund Gurney

Edmund Gurney
Birth and death
1847 - 1888
Profession details
Psychical Researcher, Psychologist
Related place
Kirsty Carter and Anne Wright

Life in Elmbridge

Edmund Gurney was the third son and fifth child of his parents, the Reverend John Hampden Gurney (1802-1862) and Mary Grey (d.c.1857). He was born on 23 March 1847 at Hersham, Surrey. Edmund had eight siblings, none of whom were born in Surrey. His father was for many years the Rector of St. Mary's Church, Marylebone, London.

Life beyond Elmbridge

William James, the American psychologist described Edmund Gurney as 'a magnificent Adonis....with an extremely handsome face, voice, and general air of distinction about him' and also admired his 'tenderest heart'. He was clever and modest and it is thought that his friend George Eliot's creation Daniel Deronda was influenced partly by Gurney's character. However, although he was blessed in many ways he was also cursed by a manic-depressive illness, chronic facial neuralgia, the early loss of his parents and the death of three sisters in a boating accident on the Nile in 1875.

Edmund Gurney was educated at a private boarding school at Blackheath, London between 1861 and 1863 and then had a private tutor. Between 1866 and 1874 he studied Classics at Trinity College, Cambridge; Gurney became a fellow of Trinity College in 1872.Once he had graduated he decided to follow his passion for music intending to become a professional musician; his efforts were in vain and his friend F.W.H.Myers reflected that he was denied '...the one gift....which would have satisfied his inborn ineradicable desire.' In 1880 he published The Power of Sound, an examination of musical experience which had limited success but helped him to become well known in intellectual circles. Gurney had moved to London in 1875, married Kate Sara Sibley on 5th June 1877 and they had a daughter, Helen, in 1881. He studied medicine at University College, London and Cambridge but the practical experience of hospital training at St.George's, London was too much for him and he turned instead to the study of law. This lasted just two years until 1883 when he declared himself to be "terminally bored".

Between 1883 and his death in 1888 Edmund Gurney devoted himself to psychical and psychological research. Early in 1882 he had been a co-founder of the Society for Psychical Research (S.P.R.) and in 1883 became the Society's Honorary Secretary. He thought that the most important fact of existence was pain and suffering and although he held no fixed religious beliefs himself felt that to find evidence of a supernatural order would give hope to earthly existence. In his collection of essays, 'Tertium Quid' (1887) he wrote, 'The keynote of life without Supernaturalism is resignation: the keynote of life with Supernaturalism is hope.' Gurney was working at a time when Christian doctrinal authority had been undermined by evolutionary ideas. He foreshadowed Karl Popper's 'negative utilitarianism' (The Open Society and its Enemies, 1952) which advocated minimising suffering rather than maximising pleasure. It is easy to see how this way of thinking stemmed from Edmund Gurney's compassionate nature.

He brought a powerful analytical mind to his research and was particularly interested in thought transference or as his friend and colleague, F.W.H.Myers, called it - telepathy. By 1886 Gurney thought the evidence for its existence was strong. He investigated many cases of 'spontaneous' telepathy and these he classified and published as Phantasms of the Living (1886). The main focus of these two volumes is on 'telepathic hallucinations' when visual or auditory sensations of recognised people occur close to the moment of their death. Phantasms attracted a great deal of attention and criticism but became a classic work nonetheless. Gurney also carried out extensive experiments on hypnotism between 1885 and 1888. His great achievement was to propose that there was an area of human experience which was worthy of scientific investigation and should not be dismissed as mere superstition.

In June 1888 it is thought that Edmund Gurney received a letter asking him to go to Brighton. Without telling his wife he complied with this request and booked into the Royal Albion Hotel in Black Lion Street. The next day, 23 June 1888, he was found dead on his bed with a chloroform pad over his nose and mouth. The coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death probably while trying to relieve his facial neuralgia. Some of his friends who knew of his depressive illness feared that he had committed suicide and T.H.Hall put forward this theory in The Strange Case of Edmund Gurney (1964). He was buried in Brighton's extramural cemetery; his widow remarried a few months later.


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