Historical Background to the Science Group of the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain

David J. Heaf

April 1999


This account aims to do no more than give a background, mention the key individuals and institutions involved and their dates and main subject areas. For fuller details of the content of the research results over more than seventy years of this movement, the reader is referred to the classified Bibliography.

Origins in the scientific activities of the anthroposophical movement in Germany and Switzerland

The Science Group is part of a renewal in science that can be traced back to last century. Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was asked by Joseph Kürchner to edit a publication of the scientific works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe for his Deutsche National-Literature and this appeared in five volumes between the years 1883 and 1897. During this time, Steiner also published his own epistemological writings which included his doctoral thesis Wahrheit und Wissenschaft (Truth & Science, 1892), Grundlinien einer Erkenntnistheorie der Goetheschen Weltanschauung (A Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World Conception,1886) and what many agree is his most important written work Die Philosophie der Freiheit (The Philosophy of Freedom, 1894). The latter is subtitled The basic elements of a modern world view: the result of observing the human soul as natural science observes nature. With these works Steiner greatly extended what Goethe had begun.

Steiner continued to publish the results of his researches in the natural sciences, especially on how the observed phenomena can be approached with new insights freed of certain prejudices and habits of thought. Above all he showed how science, the pursuit of knowledge, could be conducted in the light of spiritual science or anthroposophy.

Many professional scientists came to hear lectures which Steiner specially addressed to them. Stenographic records of most of these are available in English translation as are his writings (see Bibliography). Some scientists also came to work with Steiner at the research institute of the Kommenden Tag AG in Stuttgart, Germany and the research laboratories at the Goetheanum School of Spiritual Science in Dornach, Switzerland (referred to as ‘the School’ in the remainder of this article). The Kommenden Tag institute was founded in March 1920 but came to an abrupt end in July 1924 ultimately through financial difficulties arising from hyperinflation in the wider economy. Most of the scientists at the Kommenden Tag research institute were closely associated with the School in Dornach, which was founded in 1923. Of the Stuttgart scientists, Rudolf E. Maier (1886-1943) and Hans Buchheim (1899-1987) continued their researches at Einsingen, near Ulm. Lilly Kolisko (1893-1976) stayed at Stuttgart until 1936 under the auspices of the Stuttgart Goetheanum Biological Department.

Those who established themselves at Dornach included the physicist Dipl. Ing. Paul Eugen Schiller (1900-1992) who transferred from Stuttgart; the head (from 1924) of the Science Section of the School, Dr Guenther Wachsmuth (1893-1963), a lawyer by training and pioneer of research into etheric formative forces (see below); Ehrenfried E. Pfeiffer (1899-1961), a chemist who was later awarded an MD for his research on the early diagnosis of cancer with his ‘sensitive crystallisation’ method; researcher and physician Dr Eugen Kolisko (1893-1939). Colleagues include: physicist Dr Hermann von Dechend (1883-1956); Dipl. Ing. Wilhelm Pelikan (1893-1981); Dipl. Ing. Henri Smits, fibres research; Dr Hans Theberath (1891-1971); Dipl. Ing. Karl Lehofer (1897-?), fibres research; the chemist Dr Johann Simon Streicher (1887-1971), plant pigments research; and among the close associates Dr Walter Johannes Stein (1891-1957) and Dr Ernst Lehrs (1894-1979).1 Research in agriculture — later known as biodynamic agriculture — was pursued from outset of the ‘Experimental Circle’, formed after Steiner gave his agriculture lectures in Silesia in June 1924, in close association with the Science Section and eventually formed a department within this section. 

By far the dominant research theme of the early 1920s in this group, and a theme which continues at the Goetheanum research institute to this day, is finding ways to experience and understand what Rudolf Steiner referred to as the etheric and etheric formative forces. This refers to something perceptible which living organisms have compared with minerals. But it cannot be conceived in the same physical terms as the forces of nature, as was erroneously done by the 19th century vitalists.

A second sphere of scientific activity was instituted in the Mathematical-Astronomical Section of the School under the leadership of Dr Elizabeth Vreede (1879-1943) who was, with Wachsmuth, part of the founding Vorstand (Executive Council) of the General Anthroposophical Society, based at Dornach. A third member of the founding Vorstand who made a contribution to research in the medical sciences was Dr Ita Wegman (1876-1943), leader of the Medical Section.

So far as the development of this scientific stream in the UK is concerned two approaches to understanding the etheric are of particular interest. The first concerns ‘sensitive imaging’ techniques which are designed as aids to the mode of cognition needed for grasping the etheric, namely Imagination. 

Imagination was recognised by the English poet Coleridge to be a living, vital agent:

“The IMAGINATION then I consider either as primary or secondary. The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.” (Biographia Litteraria, Vol. I, S. T. Coleridge, 1817.  Princeton University Press & Routledge, 1983, 304-5)

Lilly Kolisko developed one form called capillary dynamolysis (Steigbild).2 This is a form of qualitative chromatography in which aqueous extracts of biological tissues are allowed to move either radially (Fig. 1) or vertically (Fig.2) through chromatography or filter paper, followed by drying and repeating the process with a metal salt, e.g. 1% silver nitrate, in daylight.

Fig.1: Radial Capillary Dynamolysis (Chroma)
Fig.2: Vertical Capillary Dynamolysis (Steigbild)

Considerable experience of the coloured patterns formed is required to ‘read’ the processes going on in the organism from which the sample was obtained. Pfeiffer, as already mentioned, developed sensitive crystallisation (Fig. 3).3 The biological material is mixed with a metal salt, most commonly Copper(II)-chloride, the latter allowed to crystallise in shallow dishes. The huge variety of crystallisation patterns formed allows the condition of the biological fluid (blood, plant extract, food etc.) to be ‘read’. Both methods are conducted under elaborately controlled conditions. Later, Dipl. Ing. Theodor Schwenk developed the ‘drop picture’ method which involves photographing under carefully chosen illumination the pattern formed when a drop of water is allowed to fall onto the surface of water. The condition of the water or the substances added to it is ‘read’ from the picture that is obtained (Fig. 4).

Fig.3: Sensitive Crystallisation Pattern
Fig.4: Drop Picture

Developments in Britain

Lilly Kolisko introduced capillary dynamolysis to Britain when she moved there with her husband Dr Eugen Kolisko in 1936. She discovered a correlation between certain planetary events such as eclipses with certain phenomena of capillary dynamolysis. Agnes Fyfe (1898-1986) continued the work on capillary dynamolysis in the UK. In daily experiments over 25 years she showed correlations between planetary rhythms and changes in capillary dynamolysis pictures with plant extracts (see review of capillary dynamolysis).

The second major approach to research on etheric formative forces was through the application of mathematics. Two indications from Steiner provide the background for this.4 The first was his exhortation to scientists attending his lectures to overcome the narrow boundaries of their specialisations, for instance through biologists becoming competent mathematicians and vice versa. The second is through his frequent emphasis on synthetic or non-Euclidean geometry as a useful tool in this approach.

Two figures are outstanding in their response to Steiner’s indications regarding mathematics. One is Louis Locher-Ernst (1906-1962) who was Director of the Technical College of the Canton Zürich at Winterthur and the other is George Kaufmann (1894-1963), who changed his name in 1940 to George Adams. Both independently came to the idea of counterspace around the same time.5 Born in Galicia, Adams was educated in England, and read chemistry at Cambridge (1912-) where his studies included synthetic geometry. He went to meet Steiner in Dornach in 1919 and became his close associate as well as his interpreter when Steiner gave his many lectures in England and Wales through the medium of German. Adams, collaborating initially with Vreede, published his idea of physical and ethereal (etheric) spaces in 1933. He developed this approach to understanding the etheric in the context of the natural sciences and this research led to many publications (see Bibliography). Some of the fruit of Adam’s collaboration with Olive Whicher (1910-), which began in 1935, was published under their joint authorship in The Plant Between Sun and Earth.6 This book, and Whicher’s Projective Geometry7 contain much historical material relevant to this essay.

After World War II, Adams worked in connection with the Mathematical and Physical Institute, founded in Dornach in 1956 by Dr Georg Unger, and the Mathematical-Astronomical Section of the School under the leadership of Locher-Ernst.

In 1947, Adams and Michael Wilson (1901-1985) founded the Goethean Science Foundation, Clent & Forest Row, England. Wilson went on to publish his research on light and colour, partly in collaboration with Ralph W. Brocklebank (see Bibliography).

In 1959 Adams, together with Schwenk, the physician Alexander Leroi (1906-1968), Unger and others founded the Institut für Strömungswissenschaften at Herrischreid in the Black Forest. Adams applied ideas about space-counterspace to the purification of water. The sculptor John Wilkes studied with Adams and brought his skills to their collaboration by shaping the geometric surfaces of vessels and flow forms used to bring water into rhythmic flow in order to rejuvenate or revitalise it. This technological fruit of the scientific work has spread world-wide, and Wilkes continues this work at his flow research laboratory and his company Virbela Flowforms (UK) Ltd at Emerson College in Sussex. The flow research group was formed there in 1975.

From 1951 onwards, Lawrence Edwards, mathematics teacher at Edinburgh Rudolf Steiner School, made many visits to Adams to receive tuition on Adams’ approach so synthetic geometry and its application to natural science. The two men collaborated during the last twelve years of Adam’s life. Edwards developed his own research programme initially in Edinburgh, with a special focus on an etheric understanding of the heart, and, after his retirement from teaching, at his home at Strontian, Argyll, Scotland. His experiments to look for any evidence of planetary influences on plant bud extracts using capillary dynamolysis led him to notice that the buds were undergoing rhythmic changes in shape with a period of about 14 days. He discovered that forms of tree (beech, oak, cherry etc) and flower (primrose, stichwort, knapweed etc) buds fit almost perfectly the path-curve geometric shapes investigated by Adams. He showed that the cyclic variation in a parameter of the path-curve, the ‘lambda value’, was correlated with the relative movements and alignments of the moon and a planet particular to the species under study. His findings were first published in articles in 1975 and 1978,8 then in book form in 1982 and 1993.9 These findings are in accord with the idea put forward by Steiner that etheric formative forces, in contrast to physical forces which ray out from a point, work inwards from the periphery, from the cosmos.10

The theoretical background of this field of research was greatly broadened and extended by Edwards’ friend and colleague Nick Thomas (1941-), who trained as an electrical engineer and is currently General Secretary of the General Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain. The beginnings of Thomas’s enquiry into the role of the tetrahedral complex in relation to etheric forces, which picked up in part on some work Adams had published as Universal Forces in Mechanics,11 were communicated briefly at the Science Group’s conference in September 1992. Further tentative thoughts, extending the idea of counterspace to physics and drawing not only projective geometry but different affine geometries too, were published in a short article with minimal mathematical background in1996.12 A full mathematical treatment, drawing on work that has been carried out since on applying the approach to the four elements and the four ethers – i.e. across the sciences of physics, chemistry and biology – was published in book and Internet form in 1999.13

A further scientific initiative in the UK out of anthroposophy was taken by the geneticist and ecologist Dr Margaret Colquhoun. After meeting Edwards in 1979 she undertook a retraining in Goethean and anthroposophical approaches to science, first at the Carl Gustav Carus-Institut, Niefern-Öschelbronn, Germany with Dr Thomas Göbel, and then at the Forschungslaboratorium am Goetheanum, Dornach with Dr Jochen Bockemühl, then leader of the Science Section. Since her return to Scotland in 1989 she has been responsible for providing, in collaboration with others, many adult courses on Goethean science. Her work on the Ranunculaceae was published in 1989.15 The results of her collaboration with the artist and sculptor Axel Ewald to develop methods for practical observation of plants was published in 1996.14 Relevant to the historical context of this article, is Colquhoun’s inspiration of her friend and colleague Dr Isis Brook to take as the subject of her Ph. D. thesis at Lancaster University (1994) Goethean Science in Britain. Colquhoun’s work continues under the aegis of the Life Science Trust and the Pishwanton Project, as well as in collaboration with several colleagues in the Science Section of the School.

A further important adult education initiative in the UK in this context was provided by the chemistry teacher Dr Graham Kennish. His one-year Waldorf (Rudolf Steiner) School Science Teacher training courses continued for over ten years into the 1990s at Gloucester, partly in collaboration with the physicist and epistemologist Robert Rose, and assisted by many contributors.

Scientific research continues in the Medical Section of the School of Spiritual Science in Dornach. Related, ongoing research in the UK involves the anthroposophical medical doctors working in collaboration with Colquhoun and pharmacists from the principal producer of anthroposophical medicines, Weleda (UK). Their holistic research approach involves amongst other things, exact observation of the plants and other sources of the remedies; phytochemistry and spiritual scientific insight into the human being.

It should also be mentioned that ongoing research has always been a necessary part of biodynamic farming, which originated from the indications of Rudolf Steiner. Indeed as mentioned earlier, the Agricultural Department of the School is part of the Science Section in Dornach, currently under the leadership of Dr Manfred Klett. Research work in the UK has generally been published in the journal of the Biodynamic Agricultural Association.16

The Forming of the Science Group

The Group was formed at Whitsuntide 1979 at a conference attended by 27 scientists at Michael House School, Ilkeston, Derbyshire. Its formation was ratified by the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain on 17th August 1979. The first organising committee comprised:

Nick Thomas, electrical engineer
Ron Jarman, mathematician and Waldorf School Teacher
Dr Howard Smith, chemist and schoolteacher
Alan Hall, electrical engineer
Robert Kersey Green, nuclear physicist
Signatories to the application to the Society included the five named above together with John Davy (1927-1984), former science correspondent for The Observer and General Secretary of the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain (1974-1984) and Michael Wilson. Production of the Group’s journal Science Forum commenced immediately under the editorship of Dr Howard Smith and Hedley Gange. In addition to the work of Thomas, Edwards, Whicher already mentioned, the proceedings of the Group and reports and papers in Science Forum have ranged very broadly over the natural sciences – life and physical. A full list of contents of Science Forum is available on the Group’s web site. At the November 1995 meeting of the Group it was agreed that after Issue No. 10 (1996) Science Forum would cease publication. The role of Science Forum has now been replaced by the Newsletter, which goes out in March and September each year combined with the annual journal Archetype which is published in September each year.

Current research initiatives by members of the Group include those of Nick Thomas, Lawrence Edwards, Alan Hall and Dr Philip Kilner.

In 1991, the Group had 63 subscribers. At the time of writing the Group has 79 subscribers, 36 of whom are members of the Science Section of the School.

The current organizing committee comprises:

Nick Thomas, Secretary. Email: nct (at) cix.compulink.co.uk
Dr Stuart Brown, Soil Scientist and Computing Consultant, Manager of the Web Server, ‘anthropos.org’. Email: s.c.brown (at) reading.ac.uk.
Dr David Heaf, Biochemist, Editor of the Science Group Newsletter and Archetype, Treasurer & Membership secretary, Editor of the Science Group’s Web Site. For email address see Science Group Home Page
Activities of the Science Group

For many years, the Group managed to meet annually in early January. Meeting attendances declined sharply throughout the 90s, so much so that a meeting planned on the subject of the heart and flow for November 1998 had to be canceled. Previous to that, the Group met at Wynstones School near Gloucester on 22-23 November 1997 on the them of the age of the earth. Other signs of activity manifest in the publications of the Group mentioned above. In addition, members are increasingly finding email and the emailing list ‘anthropos-science’ set up and managed by Brown at Reading University.17


  1. Podak, C. (1998) Präliminarien zu einer Geschichte und Soziologie der anthroposophischen Forschungsinstitute in den zwanziger Jahren. The English translation by Paul Carline of this essay is published in Archetype, Issue No. 5, September 1999 under the title Towards a History and Sociology of the Anthroposophical Research Institutes in the 1920s.
  2. Kolisko, E. & L. (1978) Agriculture for Tomorrow. Kolisko Archive Publications, Bournemouth, 2nd edition.
  3. Pfeiffer, E. (1975) Sensitive Crystallisation Processes: A Demonstration of Formative Forces in the Blood. Anthroposophic Press, Spring Valley, NY. Translator: Henry B. Monges. Revised, Erica Sabarth & Henry N. Williams.
  4. For instance: Steiner, R. (1923) Lecture 1 of “The Relation of the Diverse Branches of the Natural Sciences to Astronomy.” 18 lectures, Stuttgart, 1-18.1.23. (Latest German Edition: Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach, GA323, 1983) “3rd Science Course” Link to David Eyes site.
  5. For an overview of counterspace, see the web site formerly authored by Nick Thomas at http://nct.goetheanum.org/ .
  6. Adams, G. & Whicher, O. (1980) The Plant Between Sun and Earth. Rudolf Steiner Press, London. 2nd Edition.
  7. Whicher, O. (1971) Projective Geometry – Creative Polarities in Space and Time. Rudolf Steiner Press, London, 1971.
  8. Edwards, L. (1975, 1978) in Mathematical & Physical Correspondence, edited by Stephen Eberhart.
  9. Edwards, L. (1982) The Field of Form. Floris Books, Edinburgh. This book was republished with much of the original material and greatly extended as ‘The Vortex of Life’, Floris Books, 1993. Details of the availability of supplementary publications to this book are available from the publisher.
  10. See for instance: Steiner R., & Wegman, I. (1967) Fundamentals of Therapy. Rudolf Steiner Press, London, 3rd Edition.
  11. Adams, G. (1977) Universal Forces in Mechanics. Rudolf Steiner Press, London.
  12. Thomas, N. (1996) Rethinking Physics. Science Group of the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain, Newsletter articles Supplement (now called Archetype), pp 1-11.
  13. Thomas, N. (1999) Science Between Space and Counterspace. Temple Lodge Publications, London. For Thomas’s Internet publications including downloadable Word 97 files and a Zip file of images see http://nct.goetheanum.org/ (follow the link to ‘People’).
  14. Colquhoun, M. (1989) Meeting the Buttercup Family. Science Forum 8, pp 34-42.
  15. Colquhoun, M. (1996) New Eyes for Plants. Hawthorn Press, Stroud.
  16. see Star and Furrow, published by the BDAA, Rudolf Steiner Press, 35 Park Road, London, NW1 6XT.
  17. For details of how to subscribe see Science Group Home Page


The author would like to thank Christoph Podak for his comments and corrections to this text.

6th edition, 23 April 2005, minor URL correction 2016