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TONY GIBSON (1914-2001)

Dr Hamilton Bertie (Tony) Gibson died in Cambridge on March 22nd, 2001 at the age of 86. From 1970 to 1976 he was Principal Lecturer and Head of the Department of Psychology at Hatfield Polytechnic (now the University of Hertfordshire) and, prior to retiring in 1979, Senior Research Fellow, a position he thereafter retained in an honorary capacity. Tony was also a Clinical Psychologist and is best known in that field for his Spiral Maze Test, a widely used instrument for assessing psychomotor ability.

Tony's first choice of career was medicine, and in 1934 he embarked on a MB Part I at Kings College London. However, he abandoned this and it was not until 1956 that he became a graduate, with a first-class honours degree in sociology from the London School of Economics. Thereafter he was drawn to psychology. He qualified in clinical psychology in 1957. He was a research assistant under Hans Eysenck at the Institute of Psychiatry from 1958 to 1961 and he completed his doctoral dissertation in 1962. He worked and published research on the Maudsley Personality Inventory, notably the Junior version. From 1961 to 1969 he was a research psychologist at the Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge, his main work being in delinquency.

At an early stage in his academic career, Tony had an interest in suggestibility and hypnosis, which he shared with several of his colleagues at the Institute of Psychiatry, including Eysenck himself and W.D. Furneaux. From 1974 onwards he published papers on hypnotic susceptibility, theories of hypnosis, historical aspects, and professional and legal issues. It was largely due to his initial efforts that 1978 saw the founding of the British Society of Experimental and Clinical Hypnosis (BSECH). For many years he was its president. His first academic book was an introduction to hypnosis (Hypnosis: Its Nature and Therapeutic Uses, London: Peter Owen, 1977).

In the period following his retirement until his death, he was extraordinarily active and prolific in his writing, which reveals the wide range of his interests. He continued to publish papers on hypnosis, and one further book on that subject appeared that he and I co-authored (Hypnosis in Therapy by H.B. Gibson and M. Heap, Hove and London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991). He also wrote a biography of Hans Eysenck (Hans Eysenck: The Man and His Work, London: Peter Owen, 1981) and books on the psychology of pain, ageing and sex.

Tony had an interesting life. He was from a comfortable middleclass background in Essex and was educated at Cranleigh public school. Following his abandonment of his medical training he was attracted to the Bohemian life of Fitzrovia, Soho and Bloomsbury in London. At one stage he worked as an artist’s life model and his handsome face became one of the best known in the country when he posed for an advertisement for Brylcreem. In 1940 an RAF cap was added plus the caption 'For active service' and he became known as the 'Brylcreem Boy'. In fact, by then Tony had become an anarchist and was a conscientious objector. Amongst other things he spent the war as an ambulance man and a farm labourer. The story is told that his first callout was to attend two soldiers, one of whom had bumped his nose, while the other had fainted at the sight of the blood.

From 1945 to 1953 he was first a handyman and then a teacher of woodwork and biology at Burgess Hill, a progressive school in Hampstead, London. He and his partner Betty Cummings (they did not actually marry until 1979) were members of the Forward Movement, an anarchist group within the Peace Pledge Union. He published papers and pamphlets on themes such as work, religion and libertarianism. In 1952 he wrote a pamphlet, published by Freedom Press, entitled Youth for Freedom, Freedom for Youth, in which he expressed his optimism in the future through fostering free will by liberal education. Betty, who was a crucial support to him, died in 1984 and from then on his companion was Carol Graham. He and Betty had two children, Peter and Jenny.

I knew Tony professionally and personally from around 1978, when BSECH was founded. However, it was not until 1985 that I discovered that he had an active interest in scepticism. The occasion was the 3rd Annual International Conference on the Paranormal at University College London, sponsored by CSICOP. Many of the leading lights of the sceptical movement were there. At the end of one lecture, a very tedious exposition of the fallacy that we are in the Age of Aquarius, Tony's hand shot up and in characteristic form he bawled out the question, 'Why do waste your time on such a load of codswallop?' Later he wrote articles and letters on sceptical matters, notably alternative medicine (e.g. 'Quackupuncture: A question of medical ethics', The Skeptic 1992, 9, 18-20) and religion – he was an aggressive atheist.

Tony’s character was as rich and complex as his life. Both in writing and in voice he was famously abrupt and outspoken. He was committed to science and rationality and he detested intellectual pretensions to power and authority that were not otherwise based, hence his belief in anarchism and, in later life, his attacks on New Age occultism, alternative medicine and anything that he perceived as charlatanism. In company he was never, ever dull and was often acerbically very amusing. He had a keen sense of the ridiculous and delighted in exploiting the absurdity of situations in which he occasionally found himself. He did not suffer fools gladly. He had the loudest of stage whispers and a lifelong stammer. He was at all times his own man. He hated the restrictions that old age and infirmity imposed upon him; even so, it is a great sadness that this was reflected in the manner of his death.

I wish there were more people like Tony. But not too many.

The following is a piece that Tony Gibson wrote for the BSECH Newsletter in 1982/3 and which is reprinted in the 2001 issue of the Skeptical Intelligencer. It is 'classic Tony'.


H.B. Gibson

A funny thing happened to me on the way to a BSECH meeting a few weeks ago. I had a telephone call from a solicitor in a northern town who said that he had heard of me as a specialist in age-regression and he asked me to come up to this town and hypnotise a policemen. I tried to get full details of the case from him and suggested that I could supply him with the names of BSECH members who lived in his part of the country. No, his clients were willing to pay generously, and he wanted to assure them that he was getting the chairman of a well-known national hypnosis society to do the job really efficiently. And the details of the case - was it a criminal case? No, it wasn't criminal although the police were involved, and he did not wish to reveal the details in case I would be biased by such knowledge; he just wanted the policeman age regressed to a certain date to see what could be discovered about his experiences.

I told him that I didn't really want to take the case on, but that he should write to me and then I would suggest whom he might approach. At least I needed some details about the sort of case it was. The ensuing letter from him gave some rather peculiar details. This policeman had been hypnotised twice by psychiatrists and some strange facts had emerged. The psychiatrists had been convinced of the genuineness of what they appeared to have found out, but apparently this solicitor did not feel satisfied with what had apparently been produced and wished to secure the services of someone who might have a more scientific approach to the investigation. Although revealing very little about the case, he intimated that other witnesses were tangentially involved in the case and they had also been hypnotised and age regressed with surprising results.

I began to get intrigued in the affair, and I must say that I suspected that some awful political and social scandal was brewing in this northern town. From the meagre details he supplied, I began to suspect that someone was trying to pull the wool over the eyes of others by means of (alleged) age regression, that two psychiatrists had fallen for it, but that this solicitor was being too shrewd for them.

After further correspondence and telephone calls, I became so interested in the mystery that I agreed to travel half-way across England (suitably fee-ed of course) to interview this policeman and perhaps some other witnesses.

This unusual solicitor (a man of high intelligence, engaging personality and expensive tastes) wined and dined me at a good hotel but declined to tell me more about the case, other than that I was to see the policeman in the morning, that the whole proceedings would be properly videotaped and that some witnesses would sit unobtrusively in the room out of sight.

All I was told was the date of the incident: it began with PC Charlie (as I will call him) on duty at the police station when a telephone call comes in from a local resident on the housing estate reporting cows straying into her garden. 'Take it from there', I was told. As I had suspected some possible hypnotic simulation I had come prepared with my appropriate bag of tricks - some microlances, a version of the Stroop Test, and some wheezes Martin Orne had put me up to. I need not have bothered. I used a perfectly standard hypnotic induction procedure with PC Charlie; he certainly closed his eyes and kept them closed, but to suggestions of relaxation it was manifest that he did the opposite, gripping the arms of the chair more tightly and frowning more grimly. Hand and arm levitation? Not a sign. Challenge for eye catalepsy? He screwed up his eyes more tightly.

He obviously had his own idea about what hypnosis should be like and he was not going to be deviated from it. Indeed, it occurred to me that his manifest tension might reflect the fact that he was strongly resisting any possibility that I might really succeed in hypnotising him, and thus reveal…

Seeing that I could get no further after long and persistent efforts to 'deepen the trance', I proceeded to suggest that he was back in the police station on the date in question at 1 a.m.

'What are you doing?'

'We're playing cards. Joe's losing all time, silly bugger. Ee, there's telephone ringing.'

Then followed a short telephone conversation; apparently a woman on the nearby housing estate was complaining that cows had strayed into her garden. Out he goes in the police car accompanied by one of his mates to the designated address. No sign of cows anywhere. Back to the police station; they make tea and continue to play cards.

Another telephone call with cows reported in another garden on the estate. Out they go again, but discover no cows anywhere. Back to the station where the 'silly bugger' Joe continues to lose money. So the night wears on, everything being reported in the present tense in vernacular speech, sometimes in a barely comprehensible mumble. Repeated suggestions that he should speak up produced little effect. He was one of the least suggestible subjects I have ever encountered.

Later in the small hours PC Charlie goes out in the police car on his own on a routine patrol of the district, and we have a dull account of the environs of a northern town early on a wet morning with no-one around. But suddenly:

'Ee, what's that blocking road? It looks like a bloody great diamond! All lights, blocking whole road. Lights flickerin’. It's terrible!'

Then follows a graphic description of a 'flying saucer' of the conventional type, as depicted in so many science fiction magazines.

This 'flying saucer' is of course illegally parked as it occupies the whole road, and I remind PC Charlie that it is his duty to investigate it.

'Nay, I'm not going near there. I'm frightened! Tha's awful - tha's terrible. Nay, I can't move!'

Signs of hyperventilation in our hero, and the arms of the chair are yet more firmly gripped. I suggest that if he opens his eyes wider (they are firmly closed) he will see more clearly. I hope either to obtain an open-eyed trance, or to get him to look me in the eyes while he repeats this monstrous stuff. But his eyes remain firmly closed and screwed up.

Apparently the engine of the car has stalled and cannot be restarted and his walkie-talkie has gone dead so he cannot call up his mates. A period of confusion follows in which his mumbling becomes even more difficult to understand, but eventually it is apparent that he is right inside the 'flying saucer' and is confronted by some uncanny creatures. There is ‘an 'orrible great dog - who isn't a dog', and what appears to be a giant spotted jellyfish that caresses him with its loathsome tentacles. But eventually:

'There's someone I know.'

'Who is he?'

'It's Joseph.'

'And is Joseph a local lad?'

'Nay, 'e's from "out there". I've known 'im all me life. E's …. grinning at me.'

Patient inquiry elicits that he first knew Joseph at the age of six, and when he told his mother about Joseph she said that he had been having a nightmare. He had also met Joseph on other occasions during his life.

The videotape recording of this session was rather long, and although I haven't seen it, it must be extraordinarily funny in a broad sort of way. PC Charlie certainly has histrionic talent and his vernacular account of his encounter with the 'flying saucer' and the strange monsters therein was very racy. I could perhaps arrange for the solicitor to show it to serious students of psychopathology, but not just for laughs.

After I concluded the 'hypnosis', I asked the witnesses to leave the room and I had a private talk with this policeman. I put it to him frankly that in my opinion he had not been hypnotised at all, but was simply 'putting on an act' to take the mickey out of those who were willing to pay good money to witness such a performance, and to try to make a fool of psychiatrists and psychologists such as me, who might be led to believe that they had hypnotised him. He denied this and further discussion revealed that he had had other 'paranormal' experiences in his life (not involving 'flying saucers') that had been both frightening and upsetting, and he seemed genuinely concerned about his mental health. Some of these experiences had included the figure of 'Joseph' who had been in the 'flying saucer'. I then told him that some people were prone to a disorder known as narcolepsy, which might involve something like waking nightmares with accompanying transient paralysis. (He had mentioned this latter symptom.) He told me some more of a private nature and the fact that the police force had once got him to go for a psychiatric investigation. It seems to me that this was not entirely a hoax perpetrated for the benefit of the 'flying saucer' buffs (the witnesses and the solicitor who had engaged me) but that, as some educated people were prepared to try to convince him that his encounter with the 'flying saucer' was real rather than hallucinatory, ergo he was mentally stable, and merely a victim of the people 'out there'.

Later, I put all this to the solicitor who had contacted me and warned him that he should be chary of precipitating a paranoid reaction in PC Charlie, as such a reaction might very well rebound on him personally and other members of the UFO society who had taken him up. I did not, of course, venture definitely to diagnose narcolepsy on such slender evidence, but I did mention it as a possibility.

It turned out that this solicitor has some official standing in the UFO society, but he appeared to be rather more scientifically oriented than some of his colleagues, and anxious to use scientific methods in investigating the credibility of witnesses who report wonderful stories, hence his seeking my aid. He wanted to retain my services further as a consultant in the investigation of such seemingly miraculous events and I had some difficulty in convincing him that I found such things rather a bore. After some ensuing correspondence in which I referred him to the usual books (When Prophecy Fails and Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science) I managed to extricate myself from the proffered position of consultant to a UFO society. Above all, I hope that I will not be concerned with any future paranoid reactions on the part of PC Charlie, the copper who refused to give a parking ticket to an illegally parked 'flying saucer' and who apparently convinced two psychiatrists of the genuineness of his experience.

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