Materialising the Medium: Ectoplasm and the Quest for Supra-Normal Biology in Fin-de-Siècle Science and Art

  • Robert Michael Brain


In the 1890s, French physiologist Charles Richet, who had recently joined a growing cohort of European scientists interested in spiritualism and psychic phenomena, described a process in which the spirit medium Eusepia Palladino externalised a hidden immaterial substance, thought to be either part of her subconscious or a discarnate spirit, in material form.1 He proposed that such phenomena of ‘materialization’ observed in spiritualist séances — evanescent slime oozing from the medium — should be understood as ‘ectoplasm’. ‘The word “ectoplasm,” which I invented for the experiments with Eusapia, seems entirely justified’, Richet explained, observing that it is a kind of gelatinous protoplasm, formless at first, that exudes from the body of the medium, and takes form later. ‘In the early stages there are always white veils and milky patches and the faces, fingers, and drawings are formed little by little in the midst of this kind of gelatinous paste that resembles moist and sticky muslin.’ He added that materialisations are ectoplasm, ‘sarcoidic extensions emanating from the body of a medium, precisely as a pseudopod from an amoeboid cell’.2 The stuff was slippery, but the term stuck: ectoplasm (with occasional variations, like ‘teleplasm’) became a key element of spiritualism and a topic of scientific investigation. By the early 1920s there were enough studies by leading scientists — Richet, Theodor Flournoy, Cesare Lombroso, Albert Freiherr von Schrenck-Notzing, Oliver Lodge, Hans Driesch, and others — that psychical researcher Gustave Geley could observe in 1921 that ‘psychophysiology … has decided to reckon with ectoplasm and to accommodate it’.3


Photographic Plate Vital Fluid Psychic Phenomenon Bizarre Imagery Psychical Phenomenon 
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  • Robert Michael Brain

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