Richard Maurice Bucke

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Richard Maurice Bucke March 18, 1837 - February 19, 1902 (often called Maurice Bucke) was an important Canadian psychiatrist in the late nineteenth century. An adventurer in his youth, he went on to study medicine, practice psychiatry, and befriend 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 – his best known work – Cosmic Consciousness, a classic in the modern study of mystical experience.


Bucke was born in 1837, in Methwold, England, the son of Rev. Horatio Walpole Bucke and his wife Clarissa Andrews, who emigrated to Canada when he was only one year old, settling near London, Ontario. 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 south to the U.S. for new sights and adventure 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 and 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 his 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 Comte's positivist philosophy. He also enjoyed reading poetry.

Bucke married Jessie Gurd in 186]. 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 call occupational therapy.

Bucke always had friends among the literati and lovers of literature (especially poetry). In 1869 he read, and was deeply impressed by, Leaves of Grass by American poet Walt Whitman. He met Whitman in 1877, developed a lasting friendship, and published a biography of the poet in 1883. 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.

Peak experience

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, he was indebted to Caleb Pink ("C.P."), whom he met shortly thereafter. C.P. was a self-educated laboring man, regarded by many who knew him as one who had a Christ-like presence and lived an admirable and honest life.

His Most Popular Book

ISBN 0-14-019337-5

The magnum opus of Bucke's career was a book that he researched and wrote over many years titled Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind. It was published the year before his death in 1901, and been continuously republished ever since. In it, Bucke described his own experience, that of contemporaries (most notably Whitman, but also unknown figures like "C.P."), and the experiences and outlook of historical figures including Buddha, Jesus, Paul, Plotinus, Muhammad, Dante, Francis Bacon, and William Blake.

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

Surprisingly, Bucke seems to think this progression is more evolutionary than spiritual (the work of Charles Darwin probably dominated most educated discourse in 1899). In Cosmic Consciousness (starting with Part 2, Chapter 2, Section 4) he explains how animals developed the sense noise detection in order to survive. Noise detection evolves by including frequency measurements which we experience as tones. Further development in this area culminates in the ability to experience and enjoy music. Likewise, animals developed the sense of light detection which then progressed to black-and-white vision. Some animals (including humans) progressed further by including frequency measurements which we experience as colors, but only mankind extended this into the appreciation of visual beauty including art. Bucke states that initially, only a small number of humans would have been able to experience music or see colors, but eventually these new traits would race through human society until only a very small number of people would not be able to hear music or experience colors.

Starting in the book's Part 3, Section 3, Bucke hypothesizes that next stage of human mental development, which he named "Cosmic Consciousness", is slowly beginning to appear but will eventually spread widely throughout all of humanity.


Bucke was part of the progressive movement concerned with the treatment of society's mentally disturbed individuals. Also, his concept of cosmic consciousness took on a life of its own (though not always well understood) and influenced the thought and writings of many other people.

Along with classics like William James's Varieties of Religious Experience (which itself cites Bucke), 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.


By Bucke

  • 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
  • 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 Bucke

  • 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)


  • 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