though this notion has been a fixture of spiritual lore for some time now it would seem that far more investigation is required before any legitimacy can be applied to it.
That the human body should be home to a physical soul which survived death was at one time rarely questioned. Then came the advent of scientific disciplines such as anatomy, chemistry and physics, whose probing and measuring raised awkward questions about where in the body a soul could live and what physical form it could take. With no medical proof being forthcoming, in 1854 the German anatomist Rudolph Wagner suggested that there must be a “special soul substance” in the body, evidence of which should be sought out by experimentation. Wagner was much ridiculed for his beliefs, and some years later his rival Ernst Haeckel mocked that at the moment of death it might be possible to liquefy the soul by freezing it and then “exhibit it in a bottle as immortal fluid”.
The nature of a human soul was a much-discussed topic within Victorian psychical research communities, many of whose members were also eminent scientists. Different philosophical conclusions were reached, but none was based on empirical evidence, it being deemed too difficult to measure any of the soul’s presumed physical properties. However, not everyone was prepared to accept this, and in the winter of 1896 Dr Duncan MacDougall, a Massachusetts-based surgeon, came up with a novel idea. “Why not,” he asked, “weigh on accurate scales a man at the very moment of death?”
MacDougall was a member of the American Society of Psychical Research and had a fascination with the idea that the human personality could survive death. Like others in his profession, he knew of no physical location within the body where the soul could be found but believed that it was “unthinkable that personality and continual personal identity should exist… and not occupy space”. He termed the hypothetical space occupied by the human personality the “soul substance” and argued that, because it did not leave the body until the moment of physical death, it must be held in place by an organic link. This, suggested MacDougall, meant that the soul substance probably had some form of mass and was “therefore capable of being detected at death by weighing a human being in the act of death”.
SOULS IN THE SCALES
By 1901, MacDougall had adapted a set of industrial beam scales (accurate to within five grams) so that one side held a platform onto which was placed a lightweight hospital bed while the other contained individual weights which could be added or subtracted to measure any change in mass. Once installed in his hospital, the surgeon then approached several terminally ill patients to ask if they would allow themselves to be weighed during the final hours of their life. On 10 April 1901, his chance came, and at 5.30pm a man “of the usual American temperament” and suffering from tuberculosis was placed onto the apparatus. He was attended by at least four people, including MacDougall and Dr John Sproull, a sympathetic colleague. Like many suffering from this disease, the exhausted patient was calm and as he ebbed away, any change to his weight was noted.