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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 March 31; 334(7595): 700.
PMCID: PMC1839221

Ian Pretyman Stevenson

Psychiatrist who researched reincarnation with scientific rigour

In a personal essay in the Journal of Scientific Exploration in 2006 Ian Stevenson wrote: “We all die of some affliction. What determines the nature of that affliction? I believe the search for the answer may lead us to think that the nature of our illnesses may derive at least in part from previous lives. The cases of children who claim to remember previous lives and who have related birthmarks and birth defects suggest this; some such children have related internal diseases. My own physical condition, defects of my bronchial tubes (from early childhood on) of which I have written separately, has given me a personal interest in this important question. Let no one think I know the answer. I am still seeking.”

Stevenson was born in Ottawa, Canada, in 1918. He died last month of a chronic lung infection. As a sickly child often bedridden with bronchitis, he was cared for by his devoted mother. He read widely in her library about oriental religions and theosophy.

Overcoming his childhood illnesses, he advanced scholastically, receiving a BSc degree in 1942 and an MD in 1943 from McGill University. He did internships, residencies, and fellowships in Montreal; Phoenix, Arizona, where he was advised to go for his health; the Alton Ochsner Medical Foundation in New Orleans; Cornell University and New York Hospital, where he trained in psychosomatic medicine; and the New Orleans and Washington Psychoanalytic Institutes.

He trained as a Freudian analyst, but, “On the way up I acquired some reputation as a maverick,” he wrote in his personal essay. One of his early papers argued that human personality was more plastic in childhood than the Freudians believed. It challenged doctrine and angered many colleagues.

His brother, Dr Kerr White, says that in New Orleans he began to look at the whole human being and switched to psychiatry. He had a personal psychoanalysis but found the Freudian method unsatisfactory. He met Aldous Huxley, read accounts of children recalling memories of past lives, and travelled widely to investigate these cases, which he carefully documented in his two volume book, Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects (1997).

The vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation, Alan Gregg, told Stevenson, “The most important question is, ‘Is there a life hereafter?'” but not many investigators were addressing the issue.

In 1957 Stevenson was appointed professor and chairman of the department of psychiatry at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The university was founded by Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the US Declaration of Independence and became the second president of the United States. In founding the university, Jefferson wrote: “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth, wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

Stevenson was in contact with other parapsychology investigators such as Drs J B Rhine and Louisa Rhine at Duke University. That led him to investigate claimed memories of a past life by young children. In 1960 he published an article in the Journal of theAmerican Society of Psychical Research about these children. It was read by Chester F Carlson, inventor of xerography and father of the xerox machine. Carlson had trained as a scientist. He funded and followed Stevenson's research, even going on a field trip.

When Carlson died in 1968 he left a million dollars in his will to support Stevenson's work. That donation freed Stevenson from routine duties, and he stepped down as chairman, becoming head of the Division of Personality Studies at the University of Virginia.

Stevenson's colleagues say that his work has been denigrated even though he followed rigorous scientific studies, documented his findings, and published them.

Dr Jim Tucker, assistant professor of medicine at the university, told the BMJ, “His case reports are incredibly detailed. He put as much on the record as possible. It's often dismissed without looking at it.”

He also added that, although cases are easiest to find in cultures with belief in reincarnation, Stevenson's group was finding cases in the United States and Europe, where interest was now higher, particularly among researchers at the University of Edinburgh.

The group is continuing to investigate children who claim to remember past lives, near-death experiences, out of body experiences, apparitions and after death communications, deathbed visions, and some other unusual experiences.

So, did Stevenson believe in reincarnation? His long time associate Dr Emily Kelly told the BMJ: “He believed the evidence was sufficient to permit a reasonable person to believe in reincarnation.”

Stevenson is survived by his second wife, Margaret Pertzoff. His first wife, Octavia, died in 1984. He had no children.

Ian Stevenson, psychiatrist and former head of the department of psychiatry at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, USA (b 1918; q McGill University, Montreal, Canada, 1943; BSc), died from a chronic lung infection on 8 February 2007.

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