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A Farewell to Dr. Karlis Osis

This article was written by Loyd Auerbach
posted under

When I first met Karlis Osis, I had no way of knowing the effect he was destined to have on my life.

I was between college and graduate school and I was visiting the American Society for Psychical Research in New York City. Our meeting left a lasting impression on me. Little did I know I'd end up working with him at the ASPR just a little over two years later.

"Dr. Osis," I said to the tall, lanky researcher walking down the stairs to the ASPR library, "my name is Loyd Auerbach. I'm headed to the Graduate Parapsychology Program at John F. Kennedy University this fall."

He looked me up and down, as if appraising me from my appearance. With a pronounced Latvian accent, he replied. "So, you are to study Parapsychology? What is your main interest in the field?"

"I'm not sure what I'll focus on yet. I'm interested in spontaneous case investigation, but also in all sorts of lab research. I really want to be able to write for the general public, though."

Again, he looked me over. "And what is your undergraduate degree in?" "Cultural Anthropology. I did a lot of work looking at supernatural beliefs and folklore."

He looked thoughtful, smiled, then got a serious look on his face. "You know, that is a very good basis for work in this field, and not enough has been done. I have an idea for you."

I hung on with bated breath, nodding to encourage him to go on. "Nothing has really been done looking at psychic experiences and the Black Magic cults here in New York City. There are many such cults and people with beliefs, and it would be simple to get to such people."

"But Dr. Osis," I said hesitantly, "I've heard about murders and mutilations around such cults. Wouldn't that be dangerous?"

"Well? We all have to make sacrifices."

As I noted the twinkle in his eye, I took an immediate liking to this man. My contact with him a couple of years later when I took a position at the ASPR only reinforced this.
Dr. Osis died December 26th, 1997 - his 80th birthday.

A Long and Special Career
Born in Latvia in 1917, Karlis Osis had an experience in his early teens that affected his life. According to The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research, Osis, who was ill at the time, experienced the moment an aunt died as "a 'tremendous wave of joy,' and he and the room were filled with a 'living light.' This 'call of the mysteriously sublime' led into psychical research and parapsychology because, he writes, 'Belief was not enough; I had to know.'"

Osis received his doctorate in psychology from the University of Munich in 1950. His dissertation topic was "A Hypothesis of Extrasensory Perception." He came to the United States and wrote to J. B. Rhine, who invited him to Duke University, where he worked at the Parapsychology Laboratory for six years.

In his long career, he worked in such areas as animal psi, distance effects on ESP (including transcontinental distances), the relationship between ESP and psychokinesis, precognition, and out-of-body experiences. His interests did not lie solely in the laboratory, however - he had great (perhaps greater) interest in spontaneous psychic experiences and the question of life after death. He was the author of more than 70 scientific articles.

A write-up about one of his recent lectures for the ASPR, Dr. Osis noted that "developed new methods of testing ESP. He conducted interviews with creative artists and found altered states of consciousness to be conducive to ESP. He studied altered states induced by meditation working with experienced meditators in the laboratory."

His work on out-of-body experiences was pioneering. He was a proponent of the projection model of OBEs (which posits something being projected from the body), and his research included a holistic perspective, looking at perceptual, psychological, and physical variables for OBEs.

When I worked at the ASPR in the early 1980s, Osis and researcher Donna McCormick were conducting research with OBE subject (and psychic) Alex Tanous. Their research involved an innovative target for Alex's OB presence (Alex-2) to look at. The target itself was a composite, created by projectors, a mirror system, and a color wheel, and it was visible only when viewed through a special lens at the front of the setup. Also, a special detection system was involved with which "Alex-2" would try to physically interact. Alex was hooked up to physiological monitors to look for correspondences between his internal state, readings from the detection device, and Alex's commentary on what was happening (he was conscious while "part" of him was out of body).

Over the years, Dr. Osis investigated numerous apparitions, hauntings, and poltergeists (see past issues of the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research for some of these). Along with Dr. Erlendur Haraldsson of Iceland, he conducted a pioneering cross-cultural study of death experiences, surveying physicians and nurses in the U.S. and India as to their observations of the dying. That study, What They Saw...at the Hour of Death: A New Look at Evidence for Life after Death, was just republished this past year and is again available.

Osis and Haraldsson also began an investigation of religious figure Satya Sai Baba, who claimed to be able to materialize and dematerialize small objects. While funding for Osis ran out, Haraldsson continued the research with Sai Baba (see Haraldsson's book Modern Miracles, Hastings House, 1997). Osis told me he had consulted a few magicians in New York for this work, including an informal consultation with Doug Henning.

Dr. Osis held several important posts over the years. He was a past president of the Parapsychological Association. He was director of research for the Parapsychology Foundation from 1957 to 1962, where he conducted experiments with mediums. From there he went directly to the ASPR as Director of Research. He stayed at the ASPR until his retirement a few years ago. His retirement as the Chester F. Carlson Research Fellow Emeritus ended all active research at the society.

Osis's Legacy
It was an honor to have Dr. Osis as a colleague at the ASPR, even though I rarely worked directly with him. The opportunities to talk with him and to bounce ideas off him left me with sound advice and much encouragement. He encouraged me to ask tough and sometimes odd questions (maybe that was his sense of humor) and not to be satisfied with the research status quo in parapsychology. And of course, he is at least partly responsible for my focus on apparitions and poltergeists.

Erlendur Haraldsson wrote of his one-time colleague, "He shall be missed by many of us. I feel grateful for having known him."

In an obituary placed in the New York Times, the ASPR referred to Osis as "a visionary whose kindness and wisdom will be missed but not forgotten." Donna McCormick, who spent years working with Osis, said, "He always stayed true to his research. He had a vision in trying to find an overall model for psychical research generally, and survival [after death] in particular. He never lost sight of the big picture and never compromised his priniciples. In his talks and his writings he always tried to inspire younger and newer researchers. More like him are needed in the field. We'll miss him."

According to parapsychologist Carlos Alvarado, "Karlis was one of the few modern parapsychologists who tried to study the issue of survival of bodily death empirically, through studies of mediums, apparitions, and other phenomena. Although not everyone agreed with the interpretation of his results nor with his methods, his work clearly stands as an example of creativity and ingenuity, and a willingness to go against the establishment in a positive and constructive way: that is, taking unpopular ideas and trying to study them systematically and scientifically. His example should be valued by all of us. Hopefully his writings will inspire the new generation of parapsychologists to follow their instincts and hopes regardless of political concerns."

Echoing Alvarado's comments, I urge anyone with an interest in survival of bodily death, in apparitions, hauntings, poltergeists, or OBEs to seek out the writings of Karlis Osis and benefit from his legacy of wisdom as I and many others have done for so long. Good-bye, Dr. Osis.

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