Theodore Besterman

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Signature of Theodore Besterman

Theodore Deodatus Nathaniel Besterman (22 November 1904 – 10 November 1976) was a psychical researcher, bibliographer, biographer, and translator. In 1945 he became the first editor of the Journal of Documentation. From the 1950s he devoted himself to studies of the works of Voltaire.


Theodore Deodatus Nathaniel Besterman was born in 1904 in Łódź, Poland, but he moved to London in his youth.

In 1925 he was elected chairman of the British Federation of Youth Movements. In the 1930s Besterman lectured at the London School of Librarianship, and edited and published many works of, and about, bibliography.[1]

During World War II Besterman served in the British Royal Artillery and the Army Bureau of Current Affairs. Afterwards he worked for UNESCO, working on international approaches to bibliography.[1]

In the 1950s Besterman began to concentrate on collecting, translating and publishing the writings of Voltaire, including much previously unpublished correspondence.[2] This was to occupy him for the rest of his life. He lived at Voltaire's house in Geneva, where he founded the Institut et Musée Voltaire and published 107 volumes of Voltaire's letters and a series of books entitled "Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century".[1] The Forum for Modern Language Studies called Besterman's edition of the correspondence "the greatest single piece of Voltairian scholarship for over a century.".[3]

During the final years of his life, Besterman opened discussions with the University of Oxford. These culminated in his naming the university his residuary legatee and arranging for the posthumous transfer of his extensive collection of books and manuscripts, which included many collective editions, to an elegant room in the Taylor Institution (the university centre for modern languages), which has space for 9000 volumes. This was renamed the Voltaire Room. Following Besterman’s death on 10 November 1976, the Voltaire Foundation was vested permanently in the University of Oxford.[4]

Besterman in 1969 published a detailed biography of Voltaire (541 pages + back matter), including many of Besterman's own translations of Voltaire's verse and correspondence.

He moved back to Britain in the late 1960s, and died in Banbury in 1976.[1]

Psychical Research[edit]

Between 1927 and 1935 he was the investigating officer for the Society for Psychical Research. His first publication was a 1924 bibliography of Annie Besant; many works of psychical research followed.[1] He was a critical researcher; in 1930 his criticism of Modern Psychic Mysteries, Millesimo Castle, Italy, a book on an Italian medium by Gwendolyn Kelley Hack, caused Arthur Conan Doyle to resign from the society. Doyle stated "... [The work of the Society] is an evil influence—is anti-spiritualist."[5]

Besterman is most well known for his 1932 paper that examined the relationship between eyewitness testimony and alleged paranormal phenomena. Besterman had a number of sitters attend a series of fake séances. He discovered that the sitters had failed to make accurate statements about the conditions and details of the séances and the phenomena that took place. His study is often cited by skeptics to demonstrate that eyewitness testimony in relation to paranormal claims is unreliable.[6][7]



  • The Divining Rod: An Experimental and Psychological Investigation, 1926
  • Mind of Annie Besant, 1927
  • Some Modern Mediums, 1930
  • Inquiry into the Unknown, 1934
  • Mrs. Annie Besant, A Modern Prophet, 1934
  • Men Against Women: A Study of Sexual Relations, 1934
  • The Beginnings of Systematic Bibliography, 1935
  • Water Divining, 1938
  • A World Bibliography of Bibliographies, 1939
  • The Love Letters of Voltaire to his Niece, 1958 (editor and translator)
  • Voltaire's Correspondence 1953–65, 107 vols
  • Philosophical Dictionary, 1971 (translator)
  • Crystal Gazing: A Study in the History, Distribution and Practice of Scrying, 1965
  • Collected Papers on the Paranormal (1968)
  • Voltaire, 1969



  1. ^ a b c d e Barber, Giles (2004). Besterman, Theodore Deodatus Nathaniel (1904–1976). Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2009-11-28. 
  2. ^ Ayer, Alfred J (1986). "1". Voltaire. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. p. 19. ISBN 0-297-78880-9. "For some time Voltaire had been writing affectionately to his elder niece, Madame Denis, and from his letters – tracked down, translated and published by the indefatigable Mr. Besterman ..."
  3. ^ "The present state of Voltaire studies". Forum for Modern Language Studies. 1965. doi:10.1093/fmls/I.3.230. Retrieved 2009-08-03. 
  4. ^ Mason, Haydn. "A history of the Voltaire Foundation" (PDF). Retrieved 30 November 2012. 
  5. ^ "Science: Houdini, Doyle". Online archive. Time magazine. 1930-03-31. Retrieved 29 November 2009. After reviewing the performance of the medium. Besterman concluded: "To put forward such a book as this as a serious contribution to psychical research . . . with such claims of infallibility ... is to bring our subject into contempt and disrepute."
  6. ^ Wiseman, R., Smith, M and Wiseman, J. (1995). "Eyewitness Testimony and the Paranormal". Skeptical Inquirer, November/December, 29-32.
  7. ^ Wiseman, R., Greening, E., Smith, M. (2003). Belief in the Paranormal and Suggestion in the Seance Room. British Journal of Psychology 94: 285–297.

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