Author’s Note: This article is dedicated to Tom Flynn, for all the time and effort he spent working with me on it.
In 1977, I wrote a story for my hometown newspaper, the Haverhill Independent, titled “The Man the Marx Brothers Loved to Hate.” It was about a relatively famous Russian immigrant named Louis B. Mayer, who opened the very first movie theater in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Mayer moved on to bigger and better things, becoming the second “M” in MGM—Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Despite being a fairly obscure city near the New Hampshire border, Haverhill has produced its share of celebrities. John Greenleaf Whittier was born in Haverhill, as was, on the opposite end of the literary spectrum, Bob Montana, creator of the Archie comic book series. Rowland Hussey Macy opened his first department store in the city before moving on to New York. Musician Rob Zombie and former Dancing with the Stars host Tom Bergeron both attended Haverhill High School.
In 2003, the movie 21 Grams, starring Sean Penn, was released in theaters. Although the title had little relation to the plot, it sparked a renewed interest in another son of Haverhill, Dr. Duncan MacDougall, possibly the most ridiculed man in atheistic and scientific circles. His obituary in the Haverhill Evening Gazette described him as a highly regarded surgeon, but that reputation was besmirched by his religion-induced belief in immortality. His notoriety was achieved in the early 1900s when he decided to weigh the soul as it exited a recently deceased body. His highly questionable determination: the human soul tipped the scales at twenty-one grams.
It was only fifty years after MacDougall’s experiments that I made my grand entrance into the world. Unbeknownst to me, MacDougall’s son resided just a few blocks from my boyhood home. Growing up, I was always indifferent to the religion into which I was indoctrinated, and no one really seemed to mind. I was forced to attend Catholic mass and school at Sacred Hearts Church. As I matured, I abandoned religion for atheism and humanism. But in Duncan MacDougall’s world, the evangelicals ruled. It was a time of faith-healing, mysticism, pseudoscience, and homeopathy. Quite frankly, it was a time of madness.
Dr. Duncan MacDougall, early 1900s. Courtesy of the Trustees of the Haverhill Public Library, Special Collections Department.
MacDougall was born on April 11, 1866, in Pollokshaws, Scotland, a suburb of Glasgow. He attended both primary and secondary school in Scotland. It is unclear if he also attended university there, but after he arrived in Haverhill at the age of twenty-eight, he matriculated to Boston University Medical School. While at BU, he was not only the class orator but also class president. He graduated with his medical degree in 1893. Most histories of the school seem to ignore the fact that a religious fanatic by the name of Charles Cullis, a Massachusetts native, founded the New England Homeopathic College, which would later become Boston University Medical School.
Upon graduation, the newly minted Dr. MacDougall established a practice in his home on the corner of Main and Fountain Streets in Haverhill. It wasn’t uncommon at the time for doctors to have their homes built with an office within. The original house no longer stands and has since been replaced by a Social Security Office. The good doctor married Mary Storer of Maine, and their only child, John, was born in 1895. Three years after graduating college, MacDougall became a naturalized citizen of the United States.
MacDougall soon became chief of staff at Gale Hospital in Haverhill, which had previously served as the Elizabeth Home for Children, an orphanage. Gale Hospital was the philanthropic legacy of a magnate in the Haverhill shoe industry, General Stephen H. Gale.
MacDougall’s religiosity is rarely spoken of. His son, John, was an active member of a Congregationalist church, but I could find no evidence that this was an inherited choice. In Scotland, according to Britannica, Congregationalism was less notable than other religions, inducing the denomination to merge with the Evangelical Union. In an anonymous article in a 1907 edition of The Boston Sunday Post, the author claimed MacDougall was “neither a believer of spiritualism or mysterious psychic phenomena, except as they can be dealt with by science.” But spiritualism, which really took root in the United States around 1850, was considered analogous to science, at least up until 1924, when Scientific American enlisted Harry Houdini to controvert such beliefs. As R. Laurence Moore noted in his article “Spiritualism and Science: Reflections on the First Decade of Spirit Rappings” (American Quarterly, October 1972), “Spiritualism became a self-conscious movement precisely by disassociating itself from any occult tradition and appealing, not to the inward illumination of mystic experience, but to the observable and verifiable objects of empirical science.”
At the time of MacDougall’s experiments, however, the soul was more a theological matter and less philosophical or supernatural. Apparently, MacDougall’s imagining of a material soul was not the same as the spiritual forces speaking through mediums at the very popular seances of the time. MacDougall, remarkably, never referenced any sources for the origination of the soul—not nature, not God, not Satan. He instead peppers his journal article “Hypothesis Concerning Soul Substance Together with Experimental Evidence of the Existence of Such Substance,” published simultaneously in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (May 1907) and American Medicine (April 1907), with pseudoscientific gobbledygook. He speaks of ether, the continuity of personality, gravity, and the ego. He hypothesized that the “soul substance” is “linked organically with the body until death takes place,” leading him to believe it “more reasonable to think that it must be some form of gravitative matter, and therefore capable of being detected at death by weighing a human being in the act of death.”
Cullis Consumptive Home.
Although he wasn’t on the staff at the Cullis Consumptive Home in Roxbury (another undertaking of Charles Cullis), MacDougall found his way to the sanitarium, where he could be assured to find patients who were literally “on their death bed.” His highly secretive experiments began in 1901; reports were leaked to a New York newspaper in 1907. “When a person dies,” MacDougall told a Post reporter, “the current belief is that the spirit or soul continues to live.” He was heavily influenced by Rudolph Wagner, a physiologist who, in 1854, proposed a “Special Soul Substance.” With the aid of four doctors, two of whom were identified as John Sproul, also of Haverhill, and William V. Grant of neighboring Lawrence, Massachusetts, MacDougall recruited tuberculosis patients to participate in an experiment for which they would never know the results. Many of the articles written about this project refer to a “Research Society” or “Club,” to which all five doctors surely belonged.
It is alleged that the former owner of Grove Hall (the private estate that Cullis purchased in 1864 to found the Consumptive Home) left behind a large Fairbanks Standard scale used to weigh bolts of silk. Details of the scale’s functionality are slim, other than the abbreviated description provided by MacDougall himself. The doctor placed a bed on “a light frame work built upon very delicately balanced platform beam scales.” (The Fairbanks Scale Company, according to a July 16, 1886, article in the Vermont Phoenix, introduced the first public novelty scale in America. It required a nickel, which was “just the required weight to free the index when it strikes inside,” apprising the customer of his or her weight. The fortunes must have been added at a later date.)
The first patient tested suffered from tuberculosis, a preferred disease for MacDougall, because the patients were weak and wouldn’t move much. After “three hours and forty minutes,” under the watchful eye of MacDougall et al., the consumptive died. According to MacDougall, the “beam end dropped with an audible stroke hitting against the lower limiting bar and remaining there with no rebound.” The weight loss was established to be three-fourths of an ounce. The weight of the soul: twenty-one grams. No nickel was required to activate this scale, but MacDougall did note that “it took the combined weight of two silver dollars to lift the beam back to actual balance.” MacDougall’s team ruled out every possible interfering force, including bladder evacuation, bowel movement, and evaporation. They even ruled out agonal breathing; MacDougall lied down on the cot and exhaled violently, producing no movement of the scale.
Between 1901 and 1902, MacDougall conducted five more experiments. The second patient was also dying of consumption. While under observation for over four hours, it was reported that he lost three-fourths of an ounce per hour. Although breathing had stopped, death was determined, it seems, by noting “the last movement of the facial muscle.” This soul was obviously a bit underweight, as it weighed in at a half ounce, or fourteen grams. Perhaps another soul was visiting at the time, because a second measurement taken after it was determined the heart had stopped beating produced a weight loss of “one and a half ounces and fifty grains.” Fifty grains is equal to 3,240 milligrams. Using the utmost of his medical training, MacDougall felt this patient was “of a totally different temperament,” leading them to have “great doubt” as to “just what moment he died.” The third patient, also inflicted with tuberculosis, lost a half ounce. A few minutes later, another ounce was lost.
The fourth patient was dying of a diabetic coma. “Unfortunately,” MacDougall wrote, “our scales were not finely balanced,” and despite a weight loss of three-eighths to a half ounce, he considered this test to be “negative.” The fifth death confounded MacDougall and his team. Despite the scale being “sensitively balanced,” it dropped with a thud, registering a loss of three-eighths of an ounce. When he brought the beam up again with weights, or possibly with the spare change in his pocket, he removed said weight, yet “the beam did not sink back.”
The sixth patient was placed on the bed moments before he expired. “I am inclined to believe that he passed away while I was adjusting the beam,” MacDougall posited. “At any rate there was no loss of weight.” “It should have been added,” MacDougall later concluded, “that there was no loss of weight that we were justified in recording.”
In other experiments, MacDougall and his team of lunatics euthanized fifteen of man’s best friend. The dogs, it was determined, suffered no weight loss at death. About thirty minutes after death, there was a reduction in weight, which MacDougall attributed to urine evaporation. Regrettably, dogs have no soul.
Based on these awkward, pseudoscientific studies, MacDougall concluded he had discovered the soul. “The net result of the experiments conducted on human beings,” MacDougall supposed, “is that a loss of substance occurs at death not accounted for by known channels of loss. Is it the soul substance? It would seem to me to be so.”
Shortly after the experiments, Doctors Grant and Sproul spoke to the Boston correspondent for the New York World, gloating about their success. They apparently considered any weight loss, whether it was twenty-one grams or an entire ounce, “wholly unaccountable for in any other way than the flight of the soul.” MacDougall told the reporter, “The research must continue extensively to conclusively demonstrate that the soul has weight.” Evidently, the Cullis Consumptive Home had terminated its relationship with MacDougall, because he utilized the World article to solicit institutional assistance in continuing his absurd investigation. “Any hospital that will give us the opportunity to continue these experiments,” he stated, “will be reimbursed.”
Combing through newspaper articles contemporaneous to MacDougall’s journal article publication, I found that his research was not exactly well received. In the summary of the New York World story found in Lincoln, Nebraska’s The Commoner (March 29, 1907), the Chicago correspondent interviewed an “eminent physiological chemist” who cited a similar German experiment conducted on mice. The mice lost between ten to twenty milligrams upon death, “a loss on the same ratio for the human body.” The anonymous chemist said it was clear that both the mouse and the human were releasing gas when their lives were terminated. “The spirit of energy in the body ceased to labor,” he said, “but I do not see any proof that any material part of the body has been set free.”
“Ounce of Soul Is Gas,” was the heading of an article in the Bridgton Pioneer (April 11, 1907). The New Jersey newspaper identifies the nameless Chicago chemist from The Commoner article above as Charles C. Mayo. Reiterating his hypothesis that gases, possibly oxygen and carbonic acid as well as “gases which have never been discovered,” were attributable to weight loss at death, Mayo turned on MacDougall with scientific know-how. “But suppose for a moment,” he told the reporter, “the soul to weigh from one-half to one ounce. It then must be a substance which never in eternity can leave the earth.” He cited gravity as a force the soul could not reckon with, something MacDougall seems to have ignored. “Nothing that has weight ever can get away from the earth’s atmosphere. … It forever will be held by the earth’s attraction.”
The March 15, 1907, edition of The Stark County Democrat, published in Canton, Ohio, reported on MacDougall’s findings and ended the story with an air of invectiveness: “All of which is as funny as phrenology and a good deal more stupid.” It continued:
It makes one think of the superstitions of savages and of peasants in rural districts remote from civilization, of white clouds emerging from the mouths of the dying, of little white mice jumping out from between their teeth, and of doubles of the dead suspended over their corpses by invisible cords at a height of a foot or two for several hours after death. It is funny … that that there are among our professional men, the graduates of our best institutions of learning, and especially among the doctors, individuals who have been so entirely untouched by the spirit of modern science that they still are sunk in the crudest and most superstitious of materialism. Everything is material, they say, therefore the soul must be material, and this material soul must be a chunk of something that anybody smart enough to use a pair of scales can detect.
Clearly, the Ohio of 1907 is unrecognizable compared to the Ohio of today. A 2008 Pew Forum Poll found that 76 percent of Ohioans identified as Christians. The final sentence seems to address the Christian belief in the soul. “Intelligent men in this age,” the author stated, “must not be held responsible for the outbursts of the half-educated peasants and savages with their superstitions still clinging to them who occasionally make a big noise in the center of the ring.”
MacDougall believed that the results from his experiment showed the human soul might have weight. His report, which was not published until 1907, stated the experiment would have to be repeated many times before any conclusion could be
obtained. (Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/21_grams_experiment)
A California newspaper, The Amador Ledger (March 22, 1907) was also highly critical of MacDougall’s experiments, characterizing him as something he adamantly denied: a spiritualist. “The spiritualist view is that the soul is a material substance, the existence of which is demonstrable to the physical senses. The Boston doctors,” the reporter surmised, “are in tune with this doctrine, and we are strongly of the opinion that they belong to the spiritualistic circle.”
The Ledger article also elaborates on the more popular depiction of the soul as a religious invention. The soul, verified only by faith, “is immaterial and essentially immortal, capable of existence in connection with or entirely independent of the body.” Scientists, the author argues, are unaccepting of both the soul of religion and of the spiritualist. “The phenomenon of life is the animal mechanism in activity; that the machinery at a standstill is death.”
An Indiana newspaper, The Plymouth Tribune, dated March 14, 1907, snatched an article from The Chicago Tribune off the news wire. The author was very skeptical of MacDougall’s findings. “Here we are treading on the confines of another world. If a man’s soul can be condensed and solidified as to be worn like a charm on a watch chain it can be shut out of heaven or saved from hell.”
In an article from the New York World, reprinted in the Albuquerque Evening Citizen (March 22, 1907), even the famous inventor and engineer Nikola Tesla weighed in on MacDougall’s souls tipping the scales. Initially addressing the issue of attempting to weigh a soul, Tesla said, “That an aggregation of impressions, thoughts, and feelings having no materiality, and vaguely designated as mind, or soul, should be a substance susceptible of quantitative determination is altogether too absurd for discussion.” But discuss he did. He said the experiments could be taken seriously only if the Massachusetts doctors were not searching for the soul but instead for the changes that occur during the body’s “awful transition from life to death.” This, he asserted, may actually “lead to important results.”
Tesla obviously loathed the anecdotal evidence put forth by MacDougall, but he also questioned the use of a scale designed for weighing bolts of fabric, despite the doctor’s claim that he had calibrated the scales to a sensitivity of “two-tenths of an ounce”:
I could not help being struck by the fact that men of a scientific caliber sufficiently large to undertake measurements requiring the greatest delicacy and skill should not be correspondingly resourceful in devising the apparatus for the purpose. A scale responding to the weight of one-tenth of an ounce is not a fit instrument for weighing the soul. … The sudden tipping of the scale demonstrates nothing except the coarseness of the instrument. Had the balance been very sensitive owing to the resistance of the air, the platform would have ascended slowly.
Over one hundred years later, it appears that Dr. MacDougall’s experiments were a stupendous failure. His search for a nonexistent component of the human body is akin to Monty Python’s search for the Holy Grail. Both are ridiculous exercises in futility. I asked two contemporary scientists to evaluate the twenty-one grams theory. “Why would the scale drop at the moment of death?” is the question I posed to Dr. M. Lee Goff, professor emeritus of forensic entomology at Chaminade University of Honolulu. “What constitutes the moment of death?” he asked. “We tend to view death as a process now rather than an instantaneous event. Not all parts of the body die at the same time.” As for the soul, Goff pondered the reduction in weight recorded by MacDougall: “If this is actually due to the soul leaving the body, where is it located during life?” Knowing full well that the soul is strictly a theological imperative for immortality, Goff queried, “Must you have a religious belief in order to have a soul? If so, is this weight loss still observable in atheists?”
I posed a similar question to Dr. Nathan Lents, professor of biology at John Jay College in New York. Like Tesla, Lents noted:
MacDougall reported on only one subject, out of six or seven, and the others showed a variety of different changes in different directions—some gained, some lost, some lost then gained—which pretty clearly shows that the measurements were within the random error of his scale. All instruments have a range in which their measurements are relatively precise (meaning “reproducible,” not accurate). If the average human being is 120–130kg, a mass of 21g is just 0.01% of the total. This means that he is reporting on changes in the fifth and sixth significant digit of his measurements. In the early twentieth century, I can’t imagine there were any scales that could measure with five orders of magnitude of precision. Even today, high precision laboratory scales are generally only trustworthy to the fourth significant figure and those scales operate at tiny scales, grams and milligrams, not kilograms. There’s simply no way that he could reliably measure weight changes in the range of 20g in an object that weighs 120kg.
To add insult to injury, Lents also noted that by placing the hospital cot on the scales, MacDougall made “the precision of those measurements even worse.” Like me, Dr. Lents felt it “laughable by today’s standards that his [MacDougall’s] work was even published, and I don’t mean because of advances in technology or knowledge, but because of scientific standards.”
On his blog Rationally Speaking (March 8, 2007), Massimo Pigliucci asked, “Does the Soul Weigh 21 Grams?” The professor of philosophy at City University of New York was equally unimpressed. “This myth, reinforced by a 2003 fictional movie by the otherwise cryptic title ‘21 grams’ is occasionally thrown to nonsupernaturalists as one more ‘proof’ that we are fools, by our own standards of reason and evidence.” Citing ethical violations, faulty data, a lack of reproduced results, and a lack of uniformity in the weight of the soul, “one showed a reversal of the loss, then another loss (the soul couldn’t make up its mind, leaving, re-entering, then leaving for good),” Pigliucci concluded, “It’s a miracle the paper got published in the first place.”
Because MacDougall could find no other explanation for the patients’ weight loss, he defaulted to a soul:
This is yet another version of the “god-of-the-gaps” argument so in vogue among the faithful, and that constitutes the backbone—such as it is—of Intelligent Design “theory.” Even more basically, why are the so-called “faithful” perennially in search of scientific confirmation of their inanities? Shouldn’t faith be enough? C’mon guys, I’m beginning to think that somewhere in your subconscious you have the terrifying suspicion that you really believe in nonsense, and are therefore desperate to get science to provide some evidence, however flimsy, that you are right after all.
MacDougall, in his correspondence with Dr. Richard Hodgson in 1901, confirmed, possibly unwittingly, that this was a purely religious endeavor veiled in science. “Most everyone believes that Tom, Dick, and Harry and all the rest of us do continue to live after death of the body. It is the central idea of all the great religious beliefs.” As Pigliucci states at the end of his post, “Why not shed the superstition altogether and see what happens? It’s a nice, comprehensible world out here.”
His Final Chapter
Although MacDougall turned to writing poetry, he remained pertinacious to his soul theory. In 1911, The New York Times reported that MacDougall wished to photograph the soul exiting the body. According to an undated article in the Haverhill Evening Gazette, “Dr. MacDougall made several efforts to photograph the departing spirit at the moment of death, and for that purpose directed a strong light a few inches above and across the body of the dying subject. The camera failed to record any change—not even the semblance of a shadow was to be found upon the development of the plates.” Hard to believe, but true.
There was no benefit to anyone to conduct such absurd experiments. Not in medicine, certainly not in science, and not even for the religious. They were worse than an exercise in futility; they were an exercise of the absurd. The entire episode was best summed up by Karl Kruszelnicki, an Australian medical doctor, who wrote for the Aussie, ABC Science (May 13, 2004):
From such slender beginnings as a single non-reproducible result, enduring myths are born. There may be lightness after death—but this experiment didn’t prove it. We do leave something behind us when we die—the enduring impact that we have had on others. We would probably have as much success in measuring the impression of that mental impact, as we would of measuring the soul.
Dr. MacDougall’s hypothetical soul departed his bodily form on October 15, 1920. He died of self-diagnosed cancer at his home in Haverhill. After undergoing two seemingly successful operations at the Phillips House in Boston, the cancer returned. MacDougall was only fifty-four years old. Despite believing in a loving god, he was failed by his deity, as so many are.
Author’s Note: This article is dedicated to Tom Flynn, for all the time and effort he spent working with me on it. In 1977, I wrote a story for my hometown newspaper, the Haverhill Independent, titled “The Man the Marx Brothers Loved to Hate.” It was about a relatively famous Russian immigrant named Louis B. …