21 Grams - Weight Of The Soul?

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These days the term “21 grams” is a part of popular culture. Holywood even made a movie with that title. Some people quote as “scientific fact” that “scientists measured people losing 21 grams of weight when they die”. Is it really so? Where did that number even come from? Here are hard facts about it:



On March 11, 1907 The New York Times published an article “Soul Has Weight, Physician Thinks” on page 5. This was the first recorded public report about the experiments of Dr. Duncan MacDougall from Haverhill, Massachusetts. A bit later, in April of 1907 Dr. MacDougal published an article entitled “The Soul: Hypothesis Concerning Soul Substance Together with Experimental Evidence of The Existence of Such Substance” in journal “American Medicine” describing his theory and experiments in more detail.
He believed that soul must contain or be made of some substance, and thus must have some weight. He formulated it this way:

“The essential thing is that there must be a substance as the basis of continuing personal identity and consciousness, for without space-occupying substance, personality or a continuing conscious ego after bodily death is unthinkable.”

Following this reasoning, he has set up an experiment where he placed dying patients on a bed connected to scales in order to measure the loss of weight in the moment of death. What follows are the exact lines that started the whole “21 grams” controversy.

“My first subject was a man dying of tuberculosis. It seemed to me best to select a patient dying with a disease that produces great exhaustion, the death occurring with little or no muscular movement, because in such a case the beam could be kept more perfectly at balance and any loss occurring readily noted.
The patient was under observation for three hours and forty minutes before death, lying on a bed arranged on a light framework built upon very delicately balanced platform beam scales. The patient’s comfort was looked after in every way, although he was practically moribund when placed upon the bed. He lost weight slowly at the rate of one ounce per hour due to evaporation of moisture in respiration and evaporation of sweat.
During all three hours and forty minutes I kept the beam end slightly above balance near the upper limiting bar in order to make the test more decisive if it should come. At the end of three hours and forty minutes he expired and suddenly coincident with death the beam end dropped with an audible stroke hitting against the lower limiting bar and remaining there with no rebound. The loss was ascertained to be three-fourths of an ounce.
This loss of weight could not be due to evaporation of respiratory moisture and sweat, because that had already been determined to go on, in his case, at the rate of one sixtieth of an ounce per minute, whereas this loss was sudden and large, three-fourths of an ounce in a few seconds.
The bowels did not move; if they had moved the weight would still have remained upon the bed except for a slow loss by the evaporation of moisture depending, of course, upon the fluidity of the feces. The bladder evacuated one or two drams of urine. This remained upon the bed and could only have influenced the weight by slow gradual evaporation and therefore in no way could account for the sudden loss.
There remained but one more channel of loss to explore, the expiration of all but the residual air in the lungs. Getting upon the bed myself, my colleague put the beam at actual balance. Inspiration and expiration of air as forcibly as possible by me had no effect upon the beam. My colleague got upon the bed and I placed the beam at balance. Forcible inspiration and expiration of air on his part had no effect. In this case we certainly have an inexplicable loss of weight of three-fourths of an ounce. Is it the soul substance? How other shall we explain it?”

Since 1 ounce = 28.3 grams, that means 3/4 of ounce = 21.2 grams and this number has precipitated into many articles and conversations as a sort of “standard weight of a soul”. However, for his other 5 patients the observed weight loss was not the same.
Patient #2 “…the loss was one ounce and a half and fifty grains”.
Patient #3 “My third case, a man dying of tuberculosis, showed a weight of half and ounce lost, coincident with death, and an additional loss of one ounce a few minutes later.”
Patient #4 “In the fourth case, a woman dying of diabetic coma, unfortunately our scales were not finely adjusted and there was a good deal of interference by people opposed to our work, and although at death the beam sunk so that it required from three-eighths to one-half ounce to bring it back to the point preceding death, yet I regard this test as of no value.”
Patient #5 “My fifth case, a man dying of tuberculosis, showed a distinct drop in the beam requiring about three-eighths of an ounce which could not be accounted for. This occurred exactly simultaneously with death but peculiarly on bringing the beam up again with weights and later removing them, the beam did not sink back to stay for fully fifteen minutes.”
Patient #6 “My sixth case I regard as one of no value from this cause.”
Experiments also included 15 dogs but no weight loss occured with them. After these experiments were published there were many discussions and full blown arguments about them. Some were pro and some against them, but all the opinions boil down to the same thing – these few measurements are not enough to be considered a proof of anything. The good old doctor diagnosed himself the biggest problem that his experiments had:

“I am aware that a large number of experiments would require to be made before the matter can be proved beyond any possibility of error, but if further and sufficient experimentation proves that there is a loss of substance occurring at death and not accounted for by known channels of loss, the establishment of such a truth cannot fail to be of the utmost importance.”

Someone once said that “Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.” This seems to a be a similar situation. Dr. MacDougall may have indeed been onto something but, as he indicated himself – the sample of 6 people is simply not big enough and the equipment coupled with methodology not good enough for “21 grams” to be accepted as “dead certain” scientific fact.
Catch 22 – don’t hold your breath for anyone else to dare and repeat these experiments in order to provide a bigger sample.


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