July 9th, 1942 - Aug 12, 2004 Bio/CV/Publications

by Bernard Carr
Robert Morris held the Koestler Chair of Parapsychology at Edinburgh from 1985 until his sudden death in August and was a central figure in the field for nearly 40 years. Parapsychology is the scientific study of those anomalous interactions between minds, or between minds and the physical world, which cannot be explained in conventional terms. Laboratory research in the subject was initiated by Joseph Rhine at Duke University in the 1930s and it has remained a controversial field ever since. Even today many main-stream scientists deny the existence of the phenomena which it purports to study. However, thanks largely to Morris’s pioneering efforts as the first holder of an academic chair in the subject in the UK, parapsychology is now achieving academic respectability.

His success may be attributed to three factors. The first is the distinctive style of research which he promoted. This attempts to link parapsychology to other more established branches of psychology and never overstates the evidence for the phenomena. This is important because parapsychology is inevitably associated with a wide range of more extreme “paranormal” phenomena, of the kind which are sensationalized in less critical branches of the press. Morris was only too aware of the dangers of misconstruing normal events as paranormal. Indeed he was able to apply his sophisticated knowledge of the psychology of deception to explain how people can be purposefully deceived by others or unpurposefully deceive themselves. He also encouraged dialogue with skeptics, or “counter-advocates” as he preferred to describe them (since he believed that all parapsychologists should be skeptical) and this helped to defuse the antipathy towards the subject. As a humorous means of getting critics on board, he used to joke that ESP was an acronym for “Error Some Place”, although he would then usually proceed to show why this wasn't a good counter-explanation for the laboratory findings. His cautious approach won the subject new-found respect, as emphasized by the fact that he served as President of the Psychology Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Sciences.

The second factor in his success was his ability to secure research funding for both himself and his students. Some of this came from sources within the UK, such as the Economic and Social Research Council, the Perrott-Warrick Fund at Trinity College, Cambridge, the Society for Psychical Research, and the University of Edinburgh itself. Much of it also came from foreign sources, such as The Institut fuer Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene in Freiburg, the Fundacao Bial in Porto, the Bjorkheim Fund in Stockholm, and the Parapsychology Foundation in New York

The third and most crucial factor was the academic lineage which he established. During his time at Edinburgh he supervised 30 PhDs in parapsychology, twelve of whom have gone on to obtain permanent academic positions in university departments, where they give lecture courses in the subject and continue to pursue their research in the area. Indeed many of his former students now have their own own PhD students, so his total academic progeny numbers now exceeds 40. There are currently 10 departments in the UK where parapsychology is pursued two of his former students are now professors. This is an important development because it means that parapsychological research is no longer dependent upon the whims of private benefactors. This contrasts with the situation in the United States, where very few PhDs have been awarded and consequently even the most active parapsychologists can find their careers curtailed when their benefactors die or lose interest in the subject.

Robert Morris was born in Canonsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1942. After taking a BSc in Psychology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1963, he specialized in comparative psychology and animal social behaviour, obtaining his PhD at Duke University in 1969. His doctoral thesis was on "Factors affecting the maintenance of the pair bond in the Blond Ring Dove" or, as he liked to put it, “How birds kiss”. During this time he also did research at the Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development at Duke University. However, alongside these mainstream research activities, he was also developing an interest in parapsychology. While studying for his PhD he was spending evenings, weekends, and summers at the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man in Durham, North Carolina, the centre founded by J.B.Rhine, who became a close friend. After he finished his doctoral research his parapsychological interests came to the fore; he became Research Coordinator and then Research Associate at the Psychical Research Foundation.

In the period 1974 to 1980 he was a faculty member at the University of California, first at Santa Barbara and then at Irvine. At both places he taught courses in parapsychology, as well as in more conventional areas, such as animal social behaviour, abnormal and comparative psychology and learning theory. He thereby initiated a pattern, later perpetuated by his own students, of incorporating parapsychology teaching within more conventional psychological curricula. He also taught individual courses in parapsychology at John F Kennedy University and the University of Southern California. He moved to the Communications Studies Laboratory at Syracuse University in 1978 and was a Senior Research Scientist in the School of Computer Science and Information Science there from 1980 until 1985, teaching courses on computer science, frontiers of human communication, and human-machine interaction.

In 1985 he moved to Britain to become the first Koestler Professor of Parapsychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Edinburgh. The chair had been established out of a bequest from the writer Arthur Koestler and his wife. It was (and remains) the only chair of its kind in the UK and that Edinburgh was prepared to accept it was largely due to the efforts of Dr.John Beloff, who had paved the way for it by conducting parapsychological research and supervising parapsychology PhD students in Edinburgh since the 1960s. In fact, Morris nearly did not apply - he was hesitant about leaving America and did not at first appreciate the prestige of a named chair in the UK. He only did so after a conversation with his friend, Richard Broughton, who had studied for his PhD in Edinburgh and was able to reassure him as to the attractions of the city!

At Edinburgh, Morris managed a varied and creative research unit. Besides his own PhD students, he was external supervisor for several more at Sheffield, Coventry and Northampton. He served on many local and national committees but also encouraged the growth of the field in many countries outside the UK. He gave invited lectures at most major universities in Britain, as well as universities in many Western European countries. On the teaching side, he developed and taught over twenty different courses, at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. He also served as external examiner for psychology students at University College Northampton and the Universities of Strathclyde, Surrey, Glasgow Caledonian and Northampton.

He had over 100 publications, including coauthorship of two books. Some were in conventional areas of psychology - such as animal social behaviour, human factors, the psychology of deception, volitional competence and performance enhancement - but most were in the psychology of anomalous experiences and various aspects of parapsychology. For a while he also co-edited the European Journal of Parapsychology, one of the major journals in the field. As Koestler Professor, he inevitably had a high profile and was often called upon to act as spokesman for the field. This was not an easy task but he fulfilled it with consummate skill, always striving for fairness and balance.

Not surprisingly, Morris was feted with many honours within the parapsychology community. He twice served as President of the Parapsychological Association, the international society (an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) for scientists and academics interested in parapsychology. He also received the Association’s Outstanding Contribution Award. He served on the Council of the Society for Psychical Research in London, becoming one of its Vice-Presidents and a recipient of its prestigious Myers medal (named after Frederik Myers, one of the Society’s founders). More significantly, because it was a reflection of the degree to which he made the subject respectable, he received many honours outside parapsychology. He was on the Council of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and for two years he was President of the Psychology Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He also received the Charles Myers Award of the British Psychological Society in 1999.

Apart from his academic achievements, Bob will be remembered as a wonderful human being - with a wry sense of humor, a deep intelligence and an unlimited potential for giving. He would spare no efforts to help people working in parapsychology, be they colleagues or strangers, and his patience even with those who knew little about the subject was legendary. He never made them feel bad about their ignorance and would always offer support rather than criticism. Above all, he was devoted to his students, who regarded him as the "dream supervisor" because his door was always open for them to drop in for a chat. Carlos Alvarado, who moved to Edinburgh with his wife Nancy Zingrone to start a PhD in 1994, recalls:

“When we first arrived at Edinburgh, I will never forget how he came to pick us up in his white car at the airport. But more than this, he and his wife Joanna opened the hospitality of their home like very few people do. We lived with them for a few years and went with them every weekday to the university and many other places. For us Scotland, as interesting and as exotic as it can be, was a foreign country. But Bob and Joanna made us feel at home and provided a place for us to feel safe. There were so many nights spent in his house, watching television, seeing Bob prepare exotic drinks and eating very spicy and strange foods. All those times come together now as something to treasure, something to remember fondly. Bob was a man who cared about others, who enjoyed being with people. He had a sense of mission that came from the core of his being in such a natural and simple way that it charmed all of us.”

Many other students could tell such tales. As the Dutch parapsychologist Dick Bierman has noted, people who worked with him felt they were part of his extended family rather just academic colleagues. Many of that “family” enjoyed his company at the Parapsychological Association meeting in Vienna just a few days before his death, when he was as sparkling as ever. Now the sparkle has gone but his lasting legacy will be the school which he founded and the new generation of academic parapsychologists whom he so inspired.

Nothing could better summarize Morris’ own vision of his work than the following story from his friend Stephan Schwartz. Shortly after he learnt that he had been appointed to the Koestler Chair, Schwartz asked him what he planned to do with life tenure in what was then, and arguably still is, the highest profile academic appointment in the field. The answer seemed so clear and insightful that he wrote it down:

"Stephan, I've thought about this a lot. I plan to take the long view. To be patient. For me that's the key; and I think it's also my strength. I don't need to make big waves. In fact that would just create opposition. I'm going to keep a low profile, and try to work with, not argue with, the academic establishment over there. My goal is to plant seeds. I think parapsychology is in trouble here in the US. It's losing ground in academia. So my goal is to use the chair to create young graduates with an interest in an academic career. I'm going to seed them as professors all over Europe, and especially in the UK. I've got the time, and I've got the assets to do that. It'll take 10...maybe, 20 years... and I'm OK with that. I don't need to be the highest profile guy in the field."

Sadly, he was not granted as much time as might have been expected, but it was time enough to make waves and time enough to sow seeds.

Robert Lyle Morris, parapsychologist; born Canonsburg, Pennsylvania 9 July 1942; Professor at University of California Santa Barbara 1974-78; Senior Research Scientist, University of Syracuse 1980-85; Koestler Professor of Parapsychology, Edinburgh 1985-2004; President of Parapsychological Association 1974 and 1985; President of Psychology Section of the British Association 1996-97; married 1966 Joanna Dubarry (two daughters); died Edinburgh 12 August 2004.