Oddity of the Week: The Weight of the Soul
Duncan MacDougall (c. 1866 – October 15, 1920) was an early 20th century physician in Haverhill, Massachusetts who sought to measure the mass purportedly lost by a human body when the soul supposedly departed the body upon death.
In 1901, MacDougall weighed six patients while they were in the process of dying from tuberculosis in an old age home. It was relatively easy to determine when death was only a few hours away, and at this point the entire bed was placed on an industrial sized scale which was apparently sensitive to the gram. He took his results (a varying amount of perceived mass loss in most of the six cases) to support his hypothesis that the soul had mass, and when the soul departed the body, so did this mass.
The determination of the soul weighing 21 grams was based on the average loss of mass in the six patients within moments after death. Experiments on mice and other animals took place. Most notably the weighing upon death of sheep seemed to create mass for a few minutes which later disappeared. The hypothesis was made that a soul portal formed upon death which then whisked the soul away.
MacDougall also measured fifteen dogs in similar circumstances and reported the results as “uniformly negative,” with no perceived change in mass. He took these results as confirmation that the soul had weight, and that dogs did not have souls. MacDougall’s complaints about not being able to find dogs dying of the natural causes that would have been ideal led one author to conjecture that he was in fact poisoning dogs to conduct these experiments.
In March 1907, accounts of MacDougall’s experiments were published in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research and the medical journal American Medicine, while the news was spread to the general public by New York Times.
His results have never been attempted to be reproduced, and are generally regarded either as meaningless or considered to have had little if any scientific merit.