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The Weight of the Soul

Dr. MacDougall measured the weight
of a human soul by placing a man
on a sensitive scale just before death
and weighing him a second time after.

Correcting for loss of gases and sweat,
MacDougall concluded the decrease
when the soul departed its bodily home
was twenty-one grams, a finding

consistent with glory–or simply
dispersion by entropy. It’s humbling
to admit having less than an ounce
of transcendence. I hope it’s enough.

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Jack Coulehan is a poet, physician and medical educator whose work appears frequently in medical journals and literary magazines. In 2012 he received the Nicholas Davies Award of the American College of Physicians for “outstanding lifetime contributions to the humanities in medicine.” His seventh collection of poetry, The Talking Cure: New and Selected Poems, was published in 2020.

About the Poem

“When I learned about Dr. Duncan MacDougall’s 1901 experiment to determine how much the soul weighs, the poet inside me clamored to have his say. To test his theory that the human soul has mass, MacDougall devised sensitive bed scales and eventually weighed six persons immediately before and after they died. He claimed positive results, although, of course, the results have never been confirmed. Wow, I thought, twenty-one grams! That really brings human culture down to size.”


12 thoughts on “The Weight of the Soul”

  1. when I look at the drawing of John Keats on his death bed, all that’s left is soul. Thank you, Jack. Great opportunity for poetic investigation.

  2. A welcome gift, this poem from distinguished poet Coulehan. Thank you, Jack. Were we exchanging lines mine next might ponder the worth of the meat part, left stinking on the scale.

    1. Thank you, Joanne.
      If only there were enough studies to do a metanalysis, then it would all be completely clear…


  3. I remember reading about that study eons ago. I agree that this is less a poem than a commentary on it, which is fine. I’ve always been more impressed by existence of soul studies that report on what people see in near death experiences when they would have no other way to know what they reported.

  4. Dr. Louis Verardo

    Until I read the section “About the poem”, I thought Dr. Coulehan was giving us a whimsical and existential commentary on the spiritual nature of mankind. Frankly, that would have been fine by itself, and a great way to end the week. Having worked alongside Jack for several years and attended his lectures, though, I should have known better, because his writings and presentations are very much grounded in the realities of clinical science and medical practice.
    Over 25 years ago, I read a letter sent in to NEJM describing a colleague’s experiment in identifying the cost of the elements found in the human body; his figure came to less than five dollars, if memory serves. Now, thanks to Dr. Coulehan’s poem, I also know the weight of the human spirit.

    Both figures are very humbling…

    Thanks for this, sir.

  5. Not much of a poem but an interesting story. My guess is that 21 grams is within the margin of error. The error in this case is trying to objectify that which cannot be objectified.

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