Seth Pancoast

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Dr. Seth Pancoast

Dr. Seth Pancoast, M.D., of Philadelphia was a professor of medicine, mystic, and occultist. He was one of the founding members of the Theosophical Society.

Personal life and career

Seth Pancoast was born to Stephen and Ann Pancoast in Darby, Pennsylvania on July 28, 1823.[1][2] His was a Quaker family; he was descended from one of three Pancoast brothers who accompanied William Penn in establishing the colony of Pennsylvania.[3]

After a classical education, Pancoast engaged in business in 1843, and then studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He was graduated in 1852. The new doctor became a professor of anatomy in a "female college" in 1853, and the next year was named a professor of "Microscopic Anatomy and Physiology" at the Institute of Medicine at Penn Medical University in Philadelphia.[4][5] After five years he entered private practice and was given emeritus status. He wrote medical books and articles, including one on the therapeutic qualities of the light spectrum.

He was apparently married three times, to Sarah Saunders Osborn, Susan George Osborn, and finally, Carrie. Pancoast had at least five daughters and one son. The son, Henry Khunrath Pancoast, was born on February 26, 1875. His name must be a tribute to the great German alchemist Heinrich Khunrath (1560–1605) [6]

Dr. Pancoast's personal library was described as "the finest private collection of works on the occult sciences in the United States."[7] One of the books was Cabala, Speculum Artis Et Naturae, in Alchemia printed by Andrea Erffurt in Augusburg Germany in 1654.[8]

He died on December 16, 1889 of heart disease and was buried in the Darby Friends Cemetery in Philadelphia.[9][10]

Seth Pancoast does not seem to be closely related to another early member, Benjamin Franklin Pancoast, a tinsmith in Cambridge, Massachusetts who joined the TS in Boston on May 12, 1894.[11]

Theosophical Society involvement

Col. Olcott described Dr. Pancoast as "a most erudite Kabbalist". The doctor was present at the meeting of September 7, 1875, that eventually led to the forming of the Theosophical Society.[12][13] Although his name is not among the sixteen people that the next day met to form the Society, he was elected as Vice-President on the meeting held on October 30, previous to the inaugural one on November 17.[14]

According to Josephine Ransom,

DR. SETH PANCOAST, of Philadelphia, was a theistic mystic and a great alchemist... He was present at Felt's lecture and questioned him closely. H.P.B. always spoke with great respect of his erudition. But when it came to putting theory to the test by evoking the unseen elemental races which guard the threshold of knowledge, he confessed he lacked courage, though H.P.B. frequently offered to assist in the ceremonies and, if necessary, face the worst of the phantoms alone. Under the names of "Lex" and "Lex et Lux" he wrote for the Spiritualistic papers on kabalistic and other matters. He remained a member till he passed away in 1889.[15]

He was among the Theosophists present at the cremation of Baron de Palm.

Occult predictions

A biographical sketch of Dr. Pancoast in Appletons' Cyclopedia described his predictions of a revival of interest in the occult:

In 1875 Dr. Pancoast calculated the return of the seventh cycle of Trithemius in 1878, announcing that if the calculation were correct there would be a revival in theosophy and other occult studies, which has since occurred. His work was merely a prelude to a much larger one, which is now (1888) approaching completion. The formulation of the latter has required twenty years' search and selection through ancient works in European libraries.[16]

Whether this work was ever completed is not known.


Dr. Pancoast's writings were erudite and well-researched. His book The Cabala was "the first book on the subject in the English language," according to Appleton's Cyclopedia, 642. He wrote two articles for The Path, according to the Union Index of Theosophical Periodicals.

  • Curability of Consumption. Philadelphia, 1855.
  • Boyhood's Perils and Man's Curse. 1860.
  • The Cabala. 1877.
  • The Kabbalah: or, The True Science of Light; and Introduction to the Philosophy and Theosophy of the Ancient Sages. New York: R. Worthington, 1883. Subtitled "Together with a Chapter on Light in the Vegetable Kingdom." Available at Google Books.
  • Bright's Disease. 1882.
  • Blue and Red Light, or, Light and Its Rays as Medicine. Philadelphia: Stoddart, 1877. Subtitled: showing that light is the original and sole source of life, as it is the source of all the physical and vital forces of nature, and that light is nature's own and only remedy for disease, and explaining how to apply the red and blue rays in curing the sick and feeble: together with a chapter on light in the vegetable kingdom." 312 pages.
  • The Ladies' Medical Guide. Philadelphia: John E. Potter, 1865. Sixth 1865 edition available at Hathitrust and also at University of Michigan. Published 1869 under title: The Ladies' medical guide and marriage friend. Includes a portrait of the author. 1869 edition available at Wellcome Library. 1875 edition was subtitled: "a complete instructor and counsellor, embracing a full and exhaustive account of the structure and functions of the reproductive organs, the diseases of females and children, with their causes, symptoms and treatment, the toilet considered in reference to female health, beauty and longevity, etc., etc., etc., with an appendix containing startling facts in plain words for mothers and the young." According the 1865 sixth edition, Dr. Pancoast applied for copyright in 1859. Other editions were published in St. Louis and San Francisco.

Biographies and other resources

  • Austin, Benjamin W. Autograph Collection, 1885-1894. "Collection assembled by Benjamin W. Austin as secretary of Trinity Historical Society, Dallas, Tex., 1885-1894, includes letters from physicians, several eclectic or homeopathic, accepting honorary or non-resident membership in society."
  • Herringshaw, Thomas William. "Pancoast, Seth" in Herringshaw's national library of American biography: contains thirty-five thousand biographies of the acknowledged leaders of life and thought of the United States V4.. Chicago: American Publishers' Association, 1914. Illustrated with three thousand vignette portraits.


  1. Darby Friends Cemetery records in U.S. Find A Grave Index.
  2. Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, Births and Death, 1827-1903. U.S. Quaker Meeting Records.
  3. "Pancoast, Seth," Appletons' Cyclopedia of American Biography, 1600-1889 Volume IV (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1889), 642.
  4. Title page of his book The Ladies' Medical Guide, 1865 sixth edition.
  5. Appletons' Cyclopedia, 642
  6. U.S. Census, 1860, 1870 and 1880.
  7. Appletons' Cyclopedia, 642.
  8. Email to Janet Kerschner from a bookseller. December 5, 2016. Theosophical Society in America Archives.
  9. "Obituary Notice" The Path 4.10 (January, 1890), 338.
  10. Darby Friends Cemetery records in U.S. Find A Grave Index.
  11. Theosophical Society General Membership Register, 1875-1942 at See book 1, entry 11159 (website file: 1D/42).
  12. Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves First Series (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 116.
  13. Theosophical Society General Membership Register, 1875-1942 at See book 1, entry unnumbered (website file: 1A/10).
  14. Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves First Series (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 135.
  15. Josephine Ransom, A Short History of the Theosophical Society (Adyar, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1938), 113-114.
  16. Appletons' Cyclopedia, 642.