A little pile of (mostly unwanted) things.


jastrowjA few days ago I visited the Joseph Jastrow archive at the David M. Rubenstein Library (Duke University, North Carolina).

Jastrow is one of my favourite psychologists, and I have frequently been inspired by his work. Born in 1863, he built America’s first psychology laboratory at the University of Wisconsin and investigated several intriguing topics, including dreams of the blind, optical illusions, and the psychology of magic. His work laid the foundations for modern-day psychology and two of his illusions – ‘Duck/Rabbit’ and ‘Boomerangs’ – still appear in most psychology textbooks.  Jastrow was also passionate about popularizing science and regularly gave public lectures, wrote newspaper articles, and broadcast on the radio.


I visited the archive in the hope of learning something new about his life and work. The staff were very friendly, and kindly allowed me to look through all the great man’s letters, scrapbooks and photographs.

The letters provided a fascinating glimpse into Jastrow’s personal life. In one box I found a letter from Jastrow containing a light-hearted description of himself – ‘Will wear any kind of clothes and eat anything…Is a good deal of a nuisance but doesn’t mind being told so’.  In another box I came across a small card tucked inside a diary.  Jastrow had created a clever little joke about Hitler and typed it up – I suspect no-one had seen the joke for over 50 years.


And then I came across the final letter in the archive.  At first, I didn’t understand what I was looking at.  The letter was dated 1944, contained a short list of Jastrow’s possessions, and asked recipients if they were interested in any of the objects. ‘A wool coat’ (‘English worsted, navy blue’), ‘4 pairs of spectacles’ (‘Can any one use the rims?’), ‘a curious collection of hand-made collar pins’,  ‘a signet ring’ (‘Unsentimental though I pretend to be, I should rather like to keep it’).  And then the penny dropped. Jastrow had just died.


In life he investigated the dreams of Helen Keller, was a personal friend of Harry Houdini, and created a complex psychological profile of Adolf Hitler. In death Jastrow was reduced to a little pile of (mostly unwanted) things.

Feeling somewhat sad, I started to look through the photographs in the archive. Once again, it was the final item that caught my eye. Right at the back of the last box was a wonderful photograph of Jastrow sitting by a radio microphone. I have never seen the image before and I think this is the first time it has been made public. I love the photograph because Jastrow looks so relaxed, absorbed and happy. He is doing what he loved to do, and did so well.  Sitting there resplendent in his spectacles, collar pin and signet ring.


The whole episode felt like a momento mori – a brief but striking reminder of the importance of enjoying life because soon we will all be reduced to a small pile of (mostly unwanted) things.

And that’s what I learned in the Jastrow archive.

5 comments on “A little pile of (mostly unwanted) things.

  1. gaberricci says:

    Really wonderful, Professor Wiseman.

  2. Alison Mary says:

    HOW INTERESTING Professor Wiseman! Of course, your ancestors were also “wise men”, hence your surname: you live up to their genes!

  3. Grace Foster says:

    Thank you so much for this lovely and inspiring story.

  4. Choon Neo SIOW says:

    How true, Prof Wiseman! Thank you for sharing. Thank you for the reminder to enjoy life. Whether we’re famous, ignoble, rich or poor, we all end up leaving things behind.

  5. Eddie says:

    Wikipedia says “Jastrow studied the psychology of paranormal belief and viewed paranormal phenomena as “totally unscientific and misleading”, being the result of delusion, fraud, gullibility and irrationality.” Thumbs up🙂

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