Peer reviewed scientific journals rarely devote an entire issue to the work or memory of one person. Ian Stevenson has been twice honored in this manner. In 1977 most of an issue of The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease was devoted to his work. This month an entire issue of the Journal of Scientific Exploration has been devoted to his memory.
Ian Stevenson (1918-2007) was a distinguished scientist, professor, and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, who is best known for his pioneering work in the scientific study of reincarnation, having collected and meticulously researched thousands of cases of children who, on their own, seemed to recall a past life. “Stevenson,” write psychologists Emily Kelley and Carlos Alvarado in their introduction to this issue, “was an extraordinary human being who put all of his immense capacities and energies to work on the most important question a person can ask: Who and what are we?”
The Spring 2008 issue of the Journal of Scientific Exploration features contributions on Stevenson and his work by a parade of philosophers, psychologists, and physicists whose lives were touched by this remarkable scholar. It also includes reminiscences by friends, colleagues, and a journalist, Tom Shroder of the Washington Post, who accompanied Stevenson on two of his last journeys in search of children claiming previous lives and who wrote a book on the experience called Old Souls. “Neither self-delusion, intentional fraud, peer pressure, nor coincidence,” writes Shroder, “could explain how the children Ian investigated could have known all that they knew about strangers who’d died before they were born.”
Ian Stevenson was born and raised in Canada, and studied at St. Andrews University in Scotland and at McGill University in Montreal, where he received an M.D. in 1943. He became an assistant professor of psychiatry at Tulane University in 1950, the head of the department of psychiatry at the University of Virginia in 1957, and the Director of the Division of Parapsychology (later renamed the Division of Personality Studies and then the Division of Perceptual Studies) in 1967. Before concentrating on the work for which he became best known, he carried out extensive studies of spontaneous telepathic experiences, on what would become known as cases of near-death experiences, as well as on cryptoamnesia, cases of apparent xenoglossy, “maternal impressions,” and certain types of mediumistic communications.
Stevenson’s first paper on reincarnation, published in 1960, came to the attention of Chester Carlson, the inventor of Xerox, who provided funds for further research on reincarnation and eventually endowed a chair for him at the University of Virginia. This allowed Stevenson and his colleagues to conduct field research on reincarnation in Africa, Alaska, British Columbia, Burma, India, South America, Lebanon, Turkey, among other places. Over a period of 45 years, he amassed reports of 2,600 individuals who recounted memories of places, experiences, events, circumstances, and individuals that provided evidence for “cases of the reincarnation type,” as he carefully referred to them. The children studied usually started recalling their past lives between the ages of two and four but would forget them by the age of seven or eight. Many had clear memories of their previous death, which was often violent. Stevenson published more than 200 articles and several books on his research, his magnum opus being the two-volume Reincarnation and Biology, which featured more than 200 cases in which children displayed often strikingly unusual birthmarks or birth defects that corresponded to wounds or injuries that killed the person whose life the child claimed to remember.
Stevenson, who retired in 2002, was a founding member of the Society for Scientific Exploration and exemplified the kind of scientist the Society was founded (in 1982) to encourage. The Society for Scientific Exploration is a multi-disciplinary professional organization of scientists and other scholars committed to the rigorous study of unusual and unexplained phenomena that cross traditional scientific boundaries and tend to be ignored or inadequately studied within mainstream science. Its peer-reviewed journal, the Journal of Scientific Exploration, is now in its 22nd year of publication.