Judy Dater

Dr. John E. Mack
(October 4, 1929 - Sep 27, 2004)
2008 PRG
Intellectual Courage Award

John Edward Mack, M.D. was a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He received his medical degree from the Harvard Medical School (Cum Laude, 1955) after undergraduate study at Oberlin (Phi Beta Kappa, 1951). He was a graduate of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute and was Board certified in child and adult psychoanalysis.

Dr Mack's effort to bridge psychiatry and spirituality was compared by The New York Times to that of fellow Harvard professor William James. Dr Mack advocated that Western culture requires a shift away from a purely materialist worldview – which he believed was largely responsible for the Cold War, the global ecological crisis, ethnonationalism and regional conflict – towards a transpersonal worldview which could embrace some elements of Eastern spiritual and philosophical traditions which hold that we are all connected to one another.

He researched how this sense of “connection” developed with difficulty across different cultures, including Britain and the Middle East – winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1977 for A Prince of Our Disorder, his biography of British officer T. E. Lawrence (who became known as “Lawrence of Arabia”). He interviewed political leaders and citizens of the then-Soviet Union and Israel/Palestine in the study of ethno-national conflict and the nuclear arms race. His early clinical work included explorations of dreams, nightmares and adolescent suicide.

The theme of “connection” to other life was explored most boldly in his study of men and women who reported that recurrent “alien encounter” experiences had affected the way they regarded the world, including a heightened sense of spirituality and environmental concern. Mack's interest in the transformational aspects of these extraordinary experiences, and his suggestion that the experience may be more spiritual than physical in nature – yet nonetheless real – was largely reported in the media as a simple endorsement of the reality of alien encounters.

Early career

Born in New York City, Mack received his medical degree from Harvard Medical School (Cum Laude, 1955) after undergraduate study at Oberlin (Phi Beta Kappa, 1951). He was a graduate of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute and was Board certified in child and adult psychoanalysis.

The dominant theme of his life's work has been the exploration of how one's perceptions of the world affect one's relationships.  He addressed this issue of "world view" on the individual level in his early clinical explorations of dreams, nightmares and teen suicide, and in his biographical study of the life of British officer T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in biography in 1977.

Mack advocated that Western culture required a shift away from a purely materialist worldview (which he felt was responsible for the Cold War, the global ecological crisis, ethnonationalism and regional conflict) towards a transpersonal worldview which embraced certain elements of Eastern spiritual and philosophical traditions.

Mack's interest in the spiritual aspect of human experience has been compared by the New York Times to that of a previous Harvard professor, William James. Like James, Mack became controversial for his efforts to bridge spirituality and psychiatry.

Abduction Phenomenon

This theme was taken to a controversial extreme in the early 1990s when Mack commenced his decade-plus study of 200 men and women who reported recurrent alien encounter experiences.

Such encounters had been reported since at least the 1950's (the account of Antonio Villas Boas), and had seen some limited attention from academic figures (Dr. R. Leo Sprinkle perhaps being the earliest, in the 1960s). Mack, however, remains probably the most esteemed academic to have studied the subject.

Mack initially suspected that such persons were suffering from mental illness, but when no obvious pathologies were present in the persons he interviewed, Mack's interest was piqued.

Following encouragement from longtime friend Thomas Kuhn (who predicted that the subject might be controversial, but urged Mack to simply collect data and temporarily ignore prevailing materialist, dualist and "either/or" analysis), Mack began concerted study and interviews.

Many of those Mack interviewed reported that their encounters had affected the way they regarded the world, including producing a heightened sense of spirituality and environmental concern.

Mack was somewhat more guarded in his investigations and interpretations of the abduction phenomenon than were the earlier researchers.  Literature professor Terry Matheson writes that "On balance, Mack does present as fair-minded an account as has been encountered to date, at least as these abduction narratives go." (Matheson, 251) In an undated interview, Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove stated that Mack seemed "inclined to take these [abduction] reports at face value". Mack replied by saying "Face value I wouldn't say. I take them seriously.  I don't have a way to account for them."  Similarly, the BBC quoted Mack as saying, "I would never say, yes, there are aliens taking people.  [But] I would say there is a compelling powerful phenomenon here that I can't account for in any other way, that's mysterious. Yet I can't know what it is but it seems to me that it invites a deeper, further inquiry."

Mack noted that there was a worldwide history of visionary experiences -- especially in pre-industrial societies. One example is the vision quest common to some Native American cultures. Only fairly recently in Western culture, notes Mack, have such visionary events been interpreted as aberrations or as mental illness. Mack suggested that abduction accounts might best be considered as part of this larger tradition of visionary encounters.

Mack's interest in the spiritual or transformational aspects of people's alien encounters, and his suggestion that the experience of alien contact itself may be more spiritual than physical in nature -- yet nonetheless real -- set him apart from many of his contemporaries such as Budd Hopkins, who advocated the physical reality of aliens.

In 1994 the Dean of Harvard Medical School appointed a committee of peers to review Mack's clinical care and clinical investigation of the people who had shared their alien encounters with him (some of their cases were written of in Mack's 1994 book Abduction).  In the same BBC article cited above, Angela Hind wrote, "It was the first time in Harvard's history that a tenured professor was subjected to such an investigation."

Mack described this investigation as "Kafkaesque:" He never quite knew the status of the ongoing investigation, and the nature of his critics' complaints shifted frequently, as most of their accusations against him proved baseless when closely scrutinized.

After fourteen months of inquiry, there were growing questions from the academic community (including Harvard Professor of Law Alan Dershowitz) regarding the validity of Harvard's investigation of a tenured professor who was not suspected of ethics violations or professional misconduct.  Harvard then issued a statement stating that the Dean had "reaffirmed Dr. Mack's academic freedom to study what he wishes and to state his opinions without impediment," concluding "Dr. Mack remains a member in good standing of the Harvard Faculty of Medicine." (Mack was censured for some methodological errors.) He had received legal help from Roderick MacLeish and Daniel Sheehan, and the support of Laurance Rockefeller, who also funded Mack's Center for four consecutive years at $250,000 per year.

Mack's explorations later broadened into the general consideration of the merits of an expanded notion of reality, one which allows for experiences that may not fit the Western materialist paradigm, yet deeply affect people's lives. His second (and final) book on the alien encounter experience, Passport to the Cosmos: Human Transformation and Alien Encounters (1999), was as much a philosophical treatise connecting the themes of spirituality and modern worldviews as it was the culmination of his work with the "experiencers" of alien encounters (to whom the book is dedicated).

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