A Notable Woman: Nora Sidgwick

Nora Sidgwick was born Eleanor Mildred Balfour on March 11th, 1845 in East Lothian, Scotland. She was born into a prominent family, as the niece of Lord Robert Cecil and the sister of Arthur Balfour, both men who would serve as Prime Minister and whose relationship inspired the British phrase "Bob’s your uncle". Nora’s father died when she was 10 years old, leaving her with a great responsibility in helping her mother to care for her seven younger siblings as well as the family’s three estates. This experience would serve her well in her roles as treasurer, Vice-President, and finally President of Newnham College. The Balfour family, including Nora and her sisters, were well educated and well traveled, giving Nora abilities in a multitude of foreign languages.

1889 portrait by James Jebusa Shannon

Nora showed early mathematical abilities, and her mother ensured she received a corresponding education. This led to her work alongside her brother-in-law John Strutt, or Lord Rayleigh, in physics, and the two co-authored three papers. Her interest in physics informed another major interest: the supernatural. Nora’s brother Arthur (the future PM) was also intrigued by ghost stories and the like, encouraged by his Cambridge philosophy professor Henry Sidgwick. Nora and Henry first met at a séance hosted by Arthur where Henry quickly fell for the quiet and intellectual Nora. The two married in 1876 when Nora was 31 years old - a veritable spinster in that time period - and she continued to work rather than retire to run a household.

A few years prior, Henry had helped to establish Newnham College, the second women’s college at Cambridge University. Nora was one of Newnham’s first students and she joined Henry in efforts to improve the college. She initially took on a financial role, managing accounts, buying adjoining land, having a new road laid down (Sidgwick Avenue), and establishing scholarships for less privileged students. In addition to handling finances, Nora taught math classes and was widely admired by her students. One has been quoted saying "she was soft-voiced, slight in figure, and generally pale in coloring, but in her gray eyes shone the light of the pure intellectual, quite unconscious of itself, but making one painfully aware of one’s own amateurish inferiority." The college would go on to teach both Jane Goodall, the primatologist, and Rosalind Franklin, who played a major role in the discovery of DNA's double helix shape.

Nora Sidgwick’s influence in education extended past Newnham College. In the 1860s, she became one of the first women appointed to a Royal Commission: the Bryce Commission on Secondary Education. The Bryce Report of 1895 "formed the basis for the administration and education of both boys and girls in the country." In 1890, Nora published "Health Statistics of Women Students", a study she carried out to directly counter one man’s claims that educating women harmed their health and that of their families. Also in service to women of the United Kingdom, she was a non-militant suffragist. She believed the best way of ensuring voting rights for women was for influential women like herself to use their social connections to change the minds of male politicians in their circles.

Some of those influential women were in the Ladies Dining Society along with Nora in the 1890s. Most were the wives of Cambridge academics and they took turns hosting intellectually stimulating dinner parties. Their group was extremely exclusive, allowing no new member without the unanimous approval of current members. While Nora was known for being reserved and aloof, she was more lively at Ladies Dining Society dinners, which were possibly her only chance to be with like-minded, educated women in a space without men.

While Nora Sidgwick’s legacy is largely about women’s education, I first learned about her from Deborah Blum’s book Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death. Much of the book centers on the British Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Its first president was Henry Sidgwick himself, and Nora took on that role from 1908 to 1909. She retired from Newnham the following year but continued to work until her death in 1936, even publishing a 657-page study on the trance state of medium Leonora Piper.

Along with the SPR and her colleagues, Nora worked to establish psychical research as a true science. It was a field dismissed by the majority of the day’s scientists who believed there was no worth in it, theological or physical. While Nora’s stance was on the side of psychical researchers, she was still highly skeptical and did not accept anything without an excess of evidence. During her time with the SPR, she ruffled many feathers, once even leading scores of members to resign from the organization. This did not bother her, as she saw those who left as too eager to accept faulty research and not strict enough in their standards. As she saw it, if psychical research was to gain any credibility in the scientific community, it would require the strictest standards possible.

Most of Nora’s work was related to telepathy, and she was highly skeptical of physical mediumship like the slate writing and table levitating so popular with famous "psychics". Most of them could easily be proven fraudulent, so she developed close working relationships with more credible mediums such as Leonora Piper. One of Nora’s most notable contributions to spiritualism was a study of "cross-correspondence" which she believed to be legitimate correspondence with the deceased. She also wrote the 1887 Encyclopedia Britannica entry on spiritualism, much to the dismay of those less skeptic.

Another contribution, and one which required extensive, detailed work, was the Census of Hallucinations published in 1894. SPR member Edmund Gurney started the project, but it was completed by Nora following Gurney’s death in 1888. She led researchers in canvassing 17,000 people across Britain about their experiences with "crisis apparitions" - an apparition of someone seen very close in time to their death, before the living witness would have known of the death. Of the 17,000 asked, 1,684 people answered that they had in fact seen such an apparition. Nora narrowed those down to meet the following criteria:

1. The living witness could not have known about the deceased being close to death, such as the dead being ill or elderly.

2. The witness saw the apparition within 12 hours of death.

3. More than one person could corroborate the story.

4. The witness could not have been dreaming or delirious in any way.

After eliminating all accounts which did not meet those criteria, there were 32 stories left. Nora created a formula using the chances of any given person dying on any given day and the chances of that type of hallucination. She found the 32 reliable sightings to have occurred at 442.6 times the calculated chance.

While that research supported the idea of a form of life after death, Nora also worked to disprove other supposed evidence. Most significantly, she published the paper On Spirit Photographs in 1891. This was her response to naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace’s request for the SPR to investigate photographs of spirits, some of which he believed to be authentic. Nora did not agree.

Today, there are plenty of ghost-hunting-themed shows on TV, "real ghost" sightings uploaded to YouTube, and an array of subreddits recounting personal ghost stories. Those who study these phenomena academically are known as parapsychologists and are still seen by many in the academic community as foolish. Of course, they are stuck in the same situation as the SPR members of the Victorian era in that there is still no definitive proof that ghosts exist. Much of the research today does not focus on actual reports of ghosts, but on why people believe in ghosts in the first place and the ways our minds create those ghosts.