Northcote W. Thomas

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Northcote Whitridge Thomas
Northcote W. Thomas.jpg
Born 1868
Died 1936
Occupation Anthropologist, psychical researcher

Northcote Whitridge Thomas (1868-1936) was a British anthropologist and psychical researcher.


Thomas was born in Oswestry, Shropshire. He studied history and graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge with a BA in 1890 and an MA in 1894. He published over fifty articles in academic journals and many books. He served on the councils of the Folklore Society and the Royal Anthropological Institute.[1]

In 1906, Thomas was the first anthropologist from the British Government to work in Nigeria and Sierra Leone.[2] He studied the Edo and Igbo people's and collected a number of objects from his fieldwork. His collection is now stored at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge.[3]

In Nigeria, Thomas was described as an eccentric and undiplomatic individual. His superiors transferred him to Sierra Leone in 1913, after two years he was sent home.[4] He was once described by a colonial worker as "a recognized maniac in many ways. He wore sandals, even in this country, lived on vegetables and was generally a rum person."[5] Despite criticism of his methods the Colonial Office requested the Royal Anthropological Institute to examine Thomas's anthropological research of Nigeria. They declared that they were "impressed with the thoroughness of his enquiries."[6]

It was alleged by historian Henrika Kuklick that Thomas had investigated the cannibalistic Human Leopard Society in Sierra Leone but in his report "refused to divulge the identities of the murderers he had interviewed, arguing that the anthropologist's code of professional ethics required him to maintain the confidentiality of the relationship he had with his informants."[7] However, anthropologist Paul Basu who examined archival evidence has disputed this statement noting that Thomas never wrote a report on the Human Leopard Society.[1]

Psychical research[edit]

Thomas was a member of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), he was also interested in the occult and collaborated on psychical research with his friend Andrew Lang.[8] He authored works on crystal gazing and telepathy.[9] His book on crystal gazing was criticized by anthropologist Edward Clodd as non-scientific.[10]

Selected Publications[edit]


  1. ^ a b Basu, Paul. (2016). N. W. Thomas and Colonial Anthropology in British West Africa: Reappraising a Cautionary Tale. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 22 (1): 84-107.
  2. ^ Blench, R. M. (1995). The Work of N.W. Thomas as Government Anthropologist in Nigeria. The Nigerian Field 60: 20-28.
  3. ^ "Northcote W. Thomas and his collection". Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
  4. ^ Kuklick, H. (1991). The Savage Within: The Social History of British Anthropology, 1885-1945. Cambridge University Press. pp. 199-201
  5. ^ Linstrum, Erik. (2016). Ruling Minds: Psychology in the British Empire. Harvard University Press. p. 53. ISBN 978-0-674-08866-5
  6. ^ Mills, David. (2008). Difficult Folk?: A Political History of Social Anthropology. Berghahn Books. p. 51. ISBN 978-1-84545-450-0
  7. ^ Kuklick, H. (1991). The Savage Within: The Social History of British Anthropology, 1885-1945. Cambridge University Press. p. 201
  8. ^ Lyons. Andrew P; Lyons, Harriet. (2004). Irregular Connections: A History of Anthropology and Sexuality. University of Nebraska Press. p. 149. ISBN 0-8032-2953-4
  9. ^ J, T. H. (1905). Reviewed Works: Thought Transference by Northcote W. Thomas; Crystal Gazing by Northcote W. Thomas. Man 5: 172-173.
  10. ^ Clodd, Edward. (1905). Reviewed Work: Crystal-Gazing: Its History and Practice, with a Discussion of the Evidence for Telepathic Scrying by Northcote W. Thomas. Folklore 16 (4): 479-480.