By David Goudsward
Special to Wavelengths
Duncan MacDougall (1866-1920) was a Glaswegian born, Boston trained physician who immigrated to Haverhill in 1886. Upon receiving his medical degree from Boston University School of Medicine in 1893, he returned to his adopted hometown of Haverhill, started his medical practice and married Mary Storer, a Maine native.
In 1895, their only son, John Storer was born, followed by the finalization of Dr. MacDougall’s naturalization in 1896. His home and medical practice were located on Main Street at the corner of Fountain Street, now the site of the Social Security building. The late Greg Laing, archivist at the Haverhill Public Library, visited the family as a youth and believed the maple tree on the front lawn is from the original MacDougall home.
MacDougall also donated time at a tuberculosis home in the Grove Hall neighborhood of Roxbury. The Cullis Consumptives’ Home was a charitable hospital for terminally ill tuberculosis patients that relied on faith as part of the treatment regimen. The original home was located on the former estate of a merchant in the China Trade and when a new building was erected in 1897, everything was moved, even items irrelevant to the hospital. In 1901, MacDougall discovered one of those items that should have been left behind: a Fairbanks Standard platform scale, an industrial-size unit used by the merchant to weigh his arriving bolts of silk. Dr. MacDougall was struck by an idea.
Experiment to Determine Whether Human Souls Exist
In 1901, he decided to prove scientifically that the soul does exist. He transferred a terminally ill patient onto a cot placed on the scale and during the final hours of life, he measured the exact weight of the living person and adjusted for minute weight changes due to perspiration evaporating. When the patient died, he noted a sudden, unexplained weight drop. It was slight, but measurable. Encouraged by his results, he recruited several other physicians to assist his testing and over five years. More terminal patients were monitored. The administrators of the home were increasingly reluctant to allow the testing—if the results were erroneous, it would besmirch the home’s reputation, which it relied upon since it operated entirely through donations. If MacDougall was correct, he had transformed the eidolon of “the soul” into a hierophany and had opened a theological can of worms.
MacDougall continued to observe and measure patients for six years in the face of increasing friction from the home’s administrators. His sampling was as best sparce. He a total of six patients in all and of those six, he eliminated data on the sixth patient, who inconveniently died while the scale was being calibrated. Patient #4 was discounted as well, MacDougall felt the scale hadn’t been adjusted appropriately and the administrators had interfered with proceedings.
Hoping to establish a base line, MacDougall set up a scale in his barn on Main Street. To recreate the situation of a consumption patient’s antemortem motionless exhaustion, he sedated 15 dogs, put them on the scale and then killed them via injection. There was no weight change postmortem, and MacDougall declared this was proof. Since animals don’t have souls, the lack of weight loss was to be expected.
In spite of basing his conclusions on only four patients, MacDougall drafted a preliminary report that upon death, there was a definite and unexplained loss of weight ranging from ¾ ounce up to 1½ ounces, which he concluded was the soul leaving the body. His research associates rather prudently declined to add their names to the paper.
On March 11, 1907, the New York Times published MacDougall’s results. Some sources have suggested the report was given to the Times to tarnish his reputation; it was a major breach of protocol to publish in a public medium before it had been published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. However, Dr. MacDougall had a bit of a reputation locally as a publicity hound and the increasing friction with the Cullis Consumptives’ Home may have driven MacDougal to seek validation in the public sector. As word spread through the newspapers, more details were shared, and MacDougall’s associates began to share with the press as well.
In May 1907, he published his findings simultaneously in American Medicine and the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research. MacDougall seemed ambivalent about whether his study had enough participants and blamed the Cullis administrators for interfering with his work. (MacDougall, unsurprisingly, parted ways with the home soon after the report was made public). He did try to find other hospitals to replicate his experiments to test his results with no success.
He had better luck with the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR). The ASPR’s chief investigator, Hereward Carrington, was so enthusiastic about the experiments that he wrote an article in the society’s journal proposing they contact the governor about the possibility of continuing the tests on condemned prisoners by positioning the electric chair onto platform scales.
Though several newspapers (mostly in the Bible Belt) treated MacDougall’s results as irrefutable proof of the existence of the soul, MacDougall himself was not entirely convinced his work has proven anything; his report was a preliminary assessment of progress, and admitted to the Haverhill Evening Gazette that regardless of the media hoopla, further studies were needed. Those additional tests, electric chairs or otherwise, would not occur. Physicians picked the report apart and MacDougall was overwhelmed trying to defend his work. With no further revelations forthcoming, the mainstream press lost interest and the medical profession ignored the entire unpleasant affair.
The paranormal enthusiasts never forgot Dr. MacDougall’s work, and his experiments continue to be cited sporadically in various books on supernatural topics. In 2003, interest in MacDougall’s work grew again when the Sean Penn film 21 Grams was released to the big screen. The title is a direct reference to MacDougall’s work. 21 grams convert to ¾ ounce, the weight of a soul according to Haverhill’s soul weighing physician.
David Goudsward, raised on the summit of Scotland Hill, brings his New England sensibilities and respect for historical perspective his work. Although living in Florida, his bibliography consists primarily of New England topics. His latest book, “Horror Guide to Massachusetts,” is available via Amazon. He is WHAV’s Open Mike Show’s historian.