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Richard Maurice Bucke

Richard Maurice Bucke (18371902) (often called Maurice Bucke) was an important Canadian progressive psychiatrist in the late nineteenth century. An adventurer in his youth, he later studied medicine, practiced psychiatry, and was a friend to several noted men of letters. In addition to writing and delivering professional papers, Bucke wrote three book-length studies: Man's Moral Nature, Walt Whitman, and Cosmic Consciousness.


Bucke was born in 1837, near London, Ontario to quite-literate English immigrant parents. A sibling in a large family, he had a typical farm boyhood of that era. When he left home as a boy in his teens, he traveled for new sights and adventure down into the U.S. — from Columbus, Ohio west to California — working manually at odd jobs along the way. He was part of a traveling party who had to fight for their lives under attack from the Shoshone, whose territory they traversed. Bucke tried gold prospecting, but failed to make a significant strike. He returned to Ontario.

In 1858, Bucke enrolled in McGill University's medical school in Montreal, where he delivered a distinguished thesis. Though he practiced general medicine (briefly as a ship's surgeon, in order to pay for sea travel), Bucke went on to specialize in psychiatry. He did his internship in London, England (at the University College Hospital), and while on the east shores of the Atlantic Ocean, visited France. Bucke was for a number of years an enthusiast for Auguste Compte's rationalist philosophy. He also enjoyed reading poetry.

Bucke married Jessie Gurd in 1865. The couple had seven children.

In 1877, Bucke was appointed head of a provincial Asylum for the Insane, in London, Ontario — a post he held for nearly the remainder of his life. Bucke was a progressive for his day, believing in humane contact and normalization of routines in the institution (Bucke encouraged organized sports and what we would now term "occupational therapy").

Bucke always had friends among the literati and lovers of literature (especially poetry). In 1869 he had read, and was deeply impressed by, the Leaves of Grass by American poet Walt Whitman. He met Whitman in 1877 and a lasting friendship developed (Bucke eventually wrote a published biography of the poet). Bucke developed a theory of human intellectual and emotional evolution, and, besides publishing and delivering professional papers, wrote a book on his theory titled Man's Moral Nature, published in 1879. In 1882 Bucke was elected to the English Literature Section of the Royal Society of Canada.

In 1872, while in London, England, Bucke had the pivotal experience of his life, a fleeting mystical or cognitive experience that he regarded as a few moments of "Cosmic Consciousness." Bucke described the characteristics and effects of this "faculty" as follows: sudden appearance; subjective experience of light (inner light); moral elevation; intellectual illumination; sense of immortality; loss of fear of death; loss of a sense of sin. However, the term "Cosmic Consciousness" more closely derives from yet another feature: the vivid sense of the universe as a living presence, rather than as basically lifeless, inert matter. This direct perception, which Bucke took great pains to try to explain, vivifies Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's theory of Nature.

Though well read (in French and German, as well as English), and though much influenced by the writings of Whitman, Bucke disclosed that in his attempts to more fully understand his illumination experience of 1872, his debt was to someone he met personally not long after: "C.P." This was a self-educated laboring man, regarded by many who knew him as one who both had a "Christ-like" presence and lived an admirable and honest life, Caleb Pink.

The magnum opus of Bucke's life was the book that he researched and wrote over many years, Cosmic Consciousness (published the year before his death, in 1901). In it, Bucke described his own experience, that of contemporaries (most notably Whitman, but also unknown figures like "C.P."), and (as evidenced through literature) the experiences and outlook of historical figures including Buddha, Jesus, Paul of Tarsus, Plotinus, Mohammad, Dante, Francis Bacon, and William Blake.

Bucke developed a theory involving three main stages of the development of consciousness: simple consciousness (that of animals); self-consciousness (that of the mass of humanity — encompassing reason, imagination, etc.); and cosmic consciousness (the emerging faculty and next region of human development). Among the effects of this, he believed he detected a lengthy historical trend in which religious conceptions and theologies had become less and less fearful.

His legacy is at least twofold: Bucke's was part of the progressive movement concerned with the treatment of society's mentally disturbed individuals; second, his concept of cosmic consciousness took on a life of its own (not always very well understood, perhaps) and has drifted into the thought and writings of many other people.

However, along with other classics like William James' Varieties of Religious Experience (within which he was cited), and some more recently published volumes, Bucke's study has become part of the foundation of transpersonal psychology.

One of the founders of the University of Western Ontario's medical school, his papers are held at the university's Weldon Library.

Books Edit

Authored by BuckeEdit

  • Diary of R. Maurice Bucke, M.D., C.M, 1863
  • Man's Moral Nature, 1879
  • Walt Whitman (original edition, 1883)
  • Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind, 1901, Innes & Sons, Penguin Books 1991 edition: ISBN 0-14-019337-5, 1905 edition online (37 MB PDF file)
  • Richard Maurice Bucke, Medical Mystic: Letters of Dr. Bucke to Walt Whitman and His Friends, Artem Lozynsky (editor), 1977, Wayne State University Press, ISBN 0-8143-1576-3

About BuckeEdit

  • James H Coyne, Richard Maurice Bucke: A Sketch, 1906, J. Hope & Sons (PDF of rev. ed., Toronto 1923)
  • George Hope Stevenson, The Life and Work of Richard Maurice Bucke,: An Appraisal, 1937 (1154 pp)
  • Cyril Greenland, Richard Maurice Bucke, M.D. 1837-1902. The evolution of a mystic, 1966
  • Samuel Edward Dole Shortt, Victorian Lunacy : Richard M. Bucke and the Practice of Late Nineteenth-Century Psychiatry, 1986, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-30999-9
  • Peter Rechnitzer, The Life of Dr. R.M. Bucke, 1994, Quarry Press 1997 edition: ISBN 1-55082-064-8
  • P. D. Ouspensky, The Cosmic Consciousness of Dr. Richard M. Bucke, Kessinger Publishing, 2005 edition: ISBN 1-4253-4399-6 (48 pp)

References Edit

  • Bucke, Richard Maurice, "The New Consciousness: Selected Papers of Richard Maurice Bucke" 1997, compiled by Cyril Greenland & John Robert Colombo. Toronto: Colombo & Company.
  • Bucke, Richard Maurice, "Walt Whitman's Canada" 1992, compiled by Chril Greenland & John Robert Colombo. Toronto: Hounslow Press.
  • Bucke, Richard Maurice Cosmic Consciousness, (1901 edition) — several autobiographical sections
  • Rechnitzer, Peter A. The Life of Dr. R.M. Bucke, 1994

External links Edit

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