Theodore Besterman

Theodore Deodatus Nathaniel Besterman (22 November 1904 – 10 November 1976) was a Polish-born British 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 Besterman
Theodore Besterman psychical researcher.png
Born(1904-11-22)22 November 1904
Died10 November 1976(1976-11-10) (aged 71)
OccupationBiographer, psychical researcher
Signature of Theodore Besterman.


Theodore Deodatus Nathaniel Besterman was born in 1904 in Łódź, Poland, but he relocated to London during his youth. In 1925 he was elected chairman of the British Federation of Youth Movements. During 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 methods of bibliography.[1]

During 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began to concentrate on collecting, translating and publishing the writings of Voltaire, including much previously unpublished correspondence.[2] This was to occupy him for the rest of his life.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 initiated 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 termed 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 negotiated with the University of Oxford, which 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. After 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 relocated back to Britain during the late 1960s, and died in Banbury in 1976.[1]

A humanist, in death, Besterman left a significant legacy to the British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK) to maintain the Voltaire Lecture for many years thereafter, exploring ‘any aspect of scientific or philosophical thought or human activity as affected by or with particular reference to humanism’. Humanists UK appoints a Voltaire Lecturer and awards them its prestigious Voltaire Medal each year.[5]

Besterman/McColvin AwardsEdit

During the 1990s the Library Association (LA) in the United Kingdom used to award a Besterman Award[6] every year for an outstanding bibliography. Now the LA's successor organisation, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), gives Besterman/McColvin Awards (often called the Besterman/McColvin Medals) for "outstanding works of electronic resources and e-books".[7]

Psychical researchEdit

Between 1927 and 1935 he was the investigating officer for the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). He wrote two books on Annie Besant and many works on psychical research.[1] He was a critical researcher, and became skeptical of most of the paranormal phenomena reported in the SPR journal.[8]

In 1929, Besterman with Ina Jephson and Samuel Soal performed a series of experiments to test for clairvoyance with controlled conditions.[9] The experiments involved the use of playing cards and sealed envelopes. The experiments were negative and did not reveal any evidence for clairvoyance.[9] 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."[10][11]

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 occurred. His study is often cited by skeptics to demonstrate that eyewitness testimony in relation to paranormal claims is unreliable.[12][13]

Besterman was skeptical of most physical mediums. In 1934, he visited Brazil to investigate the medium Carlos Mirabelli and detected trickery.[14]



  • The Divining Rod: An Experimental and Psychological Investigation, 1926 (with William F. Barrett)
  • 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
  • On Dreams, 1935 (editor)
  • 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). Vol. Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 28 November 2009.
  2. ^ Ayer, Alfred J (1986). "1". Voltaire. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. p. 19. ISBN 978-0-297-78880-5.
  3. ^ Brumfitt, J. H. (1965). "The present state of Voltaire studies". Forum for Modern Language Studies. (3): 230–239. doi:10.1093/fmls/I.3.230. Retrieved 3 August 2009.
  4. ^ Mason, Haydn. "A history of the Voltaire Foundation" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 30 November 2012.
  5. ^ "Nichola Raihani explains the evolutionary origins of cooperation in the biggest Voltaire Lecture to date". Humanists UK. 23 September 2021. Retrieved 3 November 2021.
  6. ^ "The Library Association Medals",, 1990. Retrieved 5 October 2020.
  7. ^ Reference Award – Besterman/McColvin Award, Retrieved 24 September 2020.
  8. ^ Wokler, Robert. (1998). The Subtextual Reincarnation of Voltaire and Rousseau. American Scholar 67 (2): 55-64.
  9. ^ a b Berger, Arthur S. (1988). Lives and Letters in American Parapsychology: A Biographical History, 1850-1987. McFarland & Company. p. 94. ISBN 0-89950-345-4
  10. ^ "Science: Houdini, Doyle". Online archive. Time magazine. 31 March 1930. Archived from the original on 27 December 2009. Retrieved 29 November 2009.
  11. ^ Polidoro, Massimo. (2001). Final Seance: The Strange Friendship Between Houdini and Conan Doyle. Prometheus Books. p. 227. ISBN 1-57392-896-8
  12. ^ Wiseman, R., Smith, M and Wiseman, J. (1995). "Eyewitness Testimony and the Paranormal". Skeptical Inquirer, November/December, 29-32.
  13. ^ Wiseman, R., Greening, E., Smith, M. (2003). Belief in the Paranormal and Suggestion in the Seance Room. British Journal of Psychology 94: 285–297.
  14. ^ Anderson, Rodger. (2006). Psychics, Sensitives and Somnambules: A Biographical Dictionary with Bibliographies. McFarland & Company. p. 121. ISBN 978-0-7864-2770-3

External linksEdit