Carlos S. Alvarado, Ph.D.
Atlantic University (Carlos.firstname.lastname@example.org)
Parapsychology has lost an important pioneer and worker, William George Roll (1926-2012). Bill, as he was generally called, had a rich life, as you can see in biographies:http://archived.parapsych.org/members/w_g_roll.html;http://www.parapsych.org/articles/37/129/obituary_dr_william_g_roll.aspx,http://www.pflyceum.org/379.html, and in an online autobiographical sketch (http://www.psychicalresearchfoundation.com/about.html) available in the Web.
Like many in parapsychology, I was influenced by Bill’s work. I still remember the excitement I felt reading his bookThe Poltergeist when I started reading about the field during the early 1970s. I last saw him at Utrecht during the conference “Utrecht II: Charting the Future of Parapsychology” (http://www.pflyceum.org/451.html), to which he was invited as one of the few surviving participants of the original 1953 Utrecht meeting sometimes referred to as the First International Conference of Parapsychological Studies (http://www.pflyceum.org/432.html). There he was invited to present a paper entitled “Parapsychological Concepts.” Bill was 27 years old at the time and he may have been the youngest parapsychologist in the program. There he was talking about conceptual issues related to psychic phenomena to an audience mainly composed of older and far more experienced and distinguished scientists and scholars, among them C. J. Ducasse, Marcel Martiny, C.A. Meier, Gardner Murphy, H.H. Price, S.G. Soal, Robert Thouless, and René Warcollier.
Many newcomers and young workers in parapsychology think mainly of Bill in terms of his poltergeist work. While there is no doubt that his contributions to this area were very important—from his first paper on the Seaford case (Pratt, J.G., & Roll, W.G. (1958). The Seaford disturbances. Journal of Parapsychology, 22, 79-124) to his last published contribution in 2012 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22229671) –his career included much more than that. Rather than present a detailed overview of Bill’s life and career I would like to honor his memory by presenting some highlights of his early days in parapsychology.
In addition to his field studies, Bill contributed to parapsychology in many other ways. One of them was conducting ESP experiments. His initial work, before he had published in the field, was referred to in the Journal of Parapsychology as follows: “The Committee of Advanced Studies at Oxford University has quite recently made a year’s grant to Mr. William G. Roll for the establishment of a small parapsychology laboratory at Oxford. Mr. Roll is a graduate student working on a thesis which deals with the philosophical implications of ESP . . . He will work under the supervision of Professor H. H. Price . . .” (Bateman, F., & Soal, S.G. (1953). Science and ESP research. Journal of Parapsychology, 17, 275-297, see p. 295). This work, also funded by the Society for Psychical Research and by the Parapsychology Foundation, took place between 1952 and 1955 and was reported in his thesis Theory and Experiment in Psychical Research(1959), for which he received a Masters in Literature from Oxford University (published later by Arno Press in 1975). In this work he included a great variety of experiments, as discussed in headings such as: Experiments with the Bernreuter Personality Inventory, ESP Experiments with Hypnotized Subjects, Neurophysiological Relations, and The Effect of Dissociation, among others. Later work included studies of psychometry (Roll, W. G., & Tart, C.T. Exploratory token object tests with a "sensitive." Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 1965, 59, 226-236).
The thesis also included much conceptual and theoretical material, which was another area in which Bill distinguished himself. Some of his early conceptual writings included “The Problem of Precognition” (Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 1961, 41, 115-128), “The Psi Field” (Proceedings of the Parapsychological Association, 1964, 1, 32-65), and his widely cited “ESP and Memory” (International Journal of Neuropsychiatry, 1966, 2, 505-552). In a paper presented in a Parapsychological Association Convention (PA) in 1959 Bill argued that “very little attention has been paid to the stimulus that evokes psi, since it became apparent that psi is probably not dependent on known physical laws . . . . It was suggested that there may be external conditions that do not fall within the scope of present-day physics on which the transmission of ESP stimuli may depend. The theory, which involves the postulate of new constituents of material objects with new causal properties, is also intended to provide a unified description of the various types of psi phenomena, such as ESP, PK, and precognition” (Towards an Explanatory Model for Psi Phenomena. Journal of Parapsychology, 1959, 23, 288).
Bill also contributed to methodology and to survival research, among other topics. The latter includes his frequent defenses of studying the transcendent phenomena of the living consciousness, such as out-of-body experiences, as opposed to obtaining evidence of the continuation of consciousness after death.
Furthermore, he devoted much time to editorial and administrative work, contributions that tend to be forgotten. Bill worked hard to develop the PA. In fact, he was the last survivor of the first PA council, formed in 1957. He held office together with Robert McConnell (President), Gertrude Schmeidler (Vice-President), Rhea White (Secretary), Remi Cadoret (Treasurer), and Council Members Margaret Anderson, and Karlis Osis. Bill served in the council in different capacities during the forming years of the PA, through the late 1950s and the 1960s, and he was PA President in 1964.
These brief comments are only highlights of Bill’s early work. As such they are not adequate to convey the beginnings and even less the later developments and contributions of a man who devoted most of his life to parapsychology. Plans are on foot to discuss his contributions in more detail. One of these is a panel I am organizing for the next PA Convention (http://www.parapsych.org/section/41/2012_convention.aspx), in which I hope some of Bill’s colleagues with discuss his contributions to various areas, and over his long and productive life.