Web Extra: Strange Science

November 30, 2009

We invited readers to share their experiences with the Rhine Institute and Dr. J.B. Rhine. Here are a few of the responses we received. If you'd like to share your tale of ESP, e-mail us or use our feedback form.

Courtesy Duke Archives

  I participated, along with my wife, Adrienne Barthen Ward '49, in the ESP card tests with Dr. Rhine. After casually going through the cards, I got many more right by concentrating on the cards. We both believed there was 'something to ESP' so we had something in common. This along with a raft of other things in common, brought us together.

We were married in '51 and over the years would from time to time refer to some "unexplained event" as ESP!!!  

- Robert Lee Ward '49,
New Providence, NJ

I was thrilled to see the article about parapsychology in the November-December 2009 issue. Both Doctor Rhines (Dr. J.B. and Dr. Louisa Rhine) were fascinating, brilliant, mysterious professors on the campus. In 1945, I felt lucky to be chosen to be tested! I did well with the Zener cards (I have often wished I had a set, just for the fond memories and fun of it). But, I could not throw dice worth a nickel.

Another test I participated in---a sealed manila envelope held a picture. We were to describe the enclosed picture!

Do I believe in ESP? Absolutely!

- Nancylee Nicklas Mohler '48,
Cupertino, CA

You elicited comments about J.B Rhine. His ESP cards were for sale, and were commonplace on campus when I was at Duke 1966-1970. The symbols were imprinted heavily enough that they could be seen through the back side of the cards if the cards were held at a certain angle to a source of artificial light. We impressed many a date from other colleges with our apparent ESP. This trick did not seem to work with Duke girls since they knew about the cards (and apparently about most everything else).  

- Philip M. Van Hoy '70,
Charlotte, NC

I was a V-12 Marine student at Duke in 1943-44. One semester I was in a Literature class on the West Campus taught by Dr. William A. White (authority on Shelley, Keats, and Byron). We met in a small classroom on the second floor of the building to the right of the Chapel.

The class before our Lit was taught by J.B. Rhine. A few times some of us would arrive early. The chalkboard would have student signatures in various versions of their names-i.e. first letter not capitalized or three letters in the middle of the signature capitalized. Once in a while a few students were waking from experiments in mass-hypnotism.

Most of those class members were civilian men and East Campus co-eds. About 15 to 20 students were enrolled in the class.

- Rev. Richard W. Mansur '44,
Holiday, FL

I entered the Graduate School Ph. D. Program in the Department of Zoology of Duke University in the fall of 1955. My major professor was Edward C. Horn, Ph. D. (Is Stacy Horn related to him?)

One of my classmates was Ruth McMahon, who informed me that she was working toward a Ph. D. Degree in Zoology to qualify her for studies with Dr. J. B. Rhine in Parapsychology (There was no doctoral program in parapsychology at that time). We discussed on several occasions Dr. Rhine's programs, which I found very interesting. Trying to make conversation with Ruth, I mentioned several strange experiences that I had encountered, including examples of déjà vu, etc. When she determined that I truly was interested in ESP research, she invited me to Dr. Rhine's laboratory where she worked and indicated that she would test me for extrasensory perception on their equipment.

One day, after classes, Ruth and I went to the Institute and met with Dr. Rhine. We had a congenial conversation about Duke and its research environment. Then, I was tested with Zener cards on ESP equipment similar to that in the upper left picture on page 19, Duke Magazine, November-December 2009 (and top center). A partition bearing cards, each with a different symbol, separated me from the tester. The tester asked me to examine the symbols on cards on my side of the petition, and when she selected a symbol on her side of the partition, I should look at all the cards on my side and “concentrated” on each before indicating the one selected by me. Then, she selected another card, and the procedure was repeated several times. After an analysis of the correct responses, I was informed that the results indicated unusually high extrasensory abilities on the Zener card apparatus.

The combination of an excellent graduate education and the enjoyment of undergraduate Blue Devil basketball with such things as visiting Doctor Rhine's Institute emphasized the uniqueness of my Duke University tenure.

After completing my doctoral program (Ph. D., 1958), I taught human neurobiology for about 40 years in several medical schools (Texas Medical Branch, Emory University, and Wake Forest University), where my friends and students were told of my experience in the Rhine Institute.

- W. Keith O'Steen, Ph. D. '58,
Jacksonville, FL


I was on a full academic scholarship at Duke, studying Forest pathology. To flesh out my finances, I became a Fuller Brush [sales]man under the tutelage of "sell 'em" Ben Smith and pounded the pavements of Durham for a year past graduation. I came across a technician who worked at the lab on Markham Avenue and he gave me the cook's tour of the place.

The heart of most of the experiments was a radioactive source that randomly emitted particles, measured as clicks on a Geiger counter. These were hooked to a switch, while a timer measured the time in the "on" position. Theoretically, switches would be "on" statistically 50% of the time. When this was hooked up to a light source and a tank of pond scum was placed under the light, a shift occurred bringing the light to "on" for - say- 55% of the time. Then the switch delivered an unpleasant mild electrical shock to cage animals, the switch shifted to "on" for statistically less than 50% of the time. Cockroaches were different - they seemed to "like" electrical shocks and seemed to have the power to shift the switch to "on" for more than 50% of the time. I was taken through the ESP experiments and told about the logical dilemma with the test design itself.

The conclusion that one came away with from these experiments is that living things seem to have some type of psychic power to shift their environment to their benefit. As a forester, I knew that tree plantings - shelterbelts, wind breaks and even big reforestation projects like the Judean Hills were able to change the environment over a period of time. But, this was different and not accountable to known scientific factors.

Later in life, I've come to the conclusion that this is the essence of "prayer". Shockingly, the benefits are not restricted to any one religious group or even to the human race alone. I never heard and religious slant from the Rhine group. Maybe this conclusion is mine alone and those people might never have realized what they stumbled into. It might be measured there as a weak force, something like the Van der Waal's forces in physics, but it was not a weak force that parted the Red Sea, raised the dead or moved the mountain to Mohammed, either - but rather, the most powerful force in the world!

- Adrian S. Juttner M.F. '70,
Abita Springs, LA

Thank you for a very interesting article in a fine magazine.I attended Duke as a Navy V-12 student from 1 March 1944 to 28 February 1945, and as a civilian in l946,  Psychology classes were of special interest, including Dr. Lundholm's Abnormal Psych class in which hypnosis was frequently demonstrated. Although I didn't attend Dr. Rhine's class, I did volunteer for a number of his labs, including those involving cards and dice, as mentioned in your article. They were interesting.

Another involved a bright light peeking through a small hole in a cardboard.  I asked how this related to parapsychology but was not given much information.  Later I heard (but could not verify) that this lab was part of a project for the US military and was related to improving pilots' maneuvers against enemy planes flying out of the sun.

- Dave Goodwin '46,
Surfside, FL