UVA’s ‘past life’ expert Stevenson dies

Ian Stevenson, the controversial UVA professor who studied children relating memories of past lives, died February 8 at Westminster-Canterbury at age 88 from pneumonia.

Stevenson compiled over 2,500 cases of children, mostly in India and Asia, who could allegedly recount details of previous lives that typically ended violently. In particular, he noted birthmarks or birth defects on a child that corresponded with photographs or descriptions of usually fatal wounds on the body of the personality in a previous life.

Stevenson was born on Halloween 1918 in Montreal, and earned his medical degree in psychiatry from McGill University. In 1957 at age 39, he was named chairman of UVA's psychiatry department.

About the same time he came to Charlottesville, he began delving into the paranormal, an interest he'd had since childhood. In 1959, he wrote "The Uncomfortable Facts about Extrasensory Perception," which was published in Harper's.

A 1960 Stevenson article on reincarnation drew the attention of two people who would influence the second half of his career: Spiritualist medium Eileen Garrett, head of the Parapsychology Foundation, who funded his first trip to India to interview children who claimed to remember previous lives, and Chester Carlson, the inventor of the Xerox machine, who in 1964 endowed a chair for Stevenson at UVA.

When Carlson died in 1968, he left $1 million to fund Stevenson's paranormal research, a controversial contribution. "I learned afterward that some adversaries of my research said I could take the million dollars with me if I would leave the University," Stevenson writes in the essay, "Half a Career with the Paranormal."

He credits then-UVA president Edgar Shannon for taking to heart Jefferson's precept, "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 published "Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation" in 1966, and in 1967 resigned as chairman of the psychiatry department to focus full time on the paranormal. With Carlson's funding, he started the Division of Personality Studies, now known as the Division of Perceptual Studies, within the psych department.

He was notoriously publicity shy. "It was easy for the media to distort his work, and certainly there were critics who would," says Jim Tucker, who continues Stevenson's work at UVA with children who seem to remember previous lives. "His main audience was scientific colleagues. His books were scholarly. He wasn't necessarily going after the general public."

But mainstream scientists "tended to ignore or dismiss his decades in the field and his many publications," calling him "credulous" or questioned his objectivity, Tom Schroder writes in Stevenson's Washington Post obituary.

Even his second wife, Margaret Pertzoff, who survives him, was an "avowed skeptic" of the paranormal. "Her silences sometimes provided a valuable check on what might otherwise become unwarranted enthusiasm on my part," writes Stevenson.

In an interview today with the Hook, Tucker describes Stevenson's work as "meticulous" and the man as "very dignified and reserved," even "patrician" despite possessing a giving, supportive side. "He could come across as staid," says Tucker. "With his three-piece suit, you would never guess his work was what some would consider outrageous."

Indeed, Stevenson writes of trying LSD and mescaline to evaluate their potential uses in psychotherapy.

"A lot of people don't remember that he was the chair of the department of psychiatry," says Tucker. "He had a successful, mainstream career before he become involved in the paranormal."

Stevenson declined to say whether he believed in reincarnation, and wrote that his beliefs should make no difference: "Everyone should examine the evidence and judge it for himself."

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1 comment

The many years of research that Dr Stevenson has done will continue to fascinate people who actually take the time to study it. Its sad that mainstream science has for the most part ignored his work.