He was a doctor and a scientist, but his work offended social mores of 1950s America
The sad and uniquely American saga of Wilhelm Reich is every immigrant’s worst nightmare.
At the zenith of his career, the Ukrainian-born, Austrian-raised scientist and doctor was considered among the best physicians in Europe. To flee the Nazis in the 1930s, Reich – a nonpracticing Jew – left for America on one of the last ships from Norway before Hitler’s armies rolled into Scandinavia.
As a teacher at New York’s New School for Social Research, Reich was barely “in country” two years before being arrested and detained at Ellis Island by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, under a hurried “custodial detainment” law which also rounded up thousands of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor.
But government pressure on Reich was driven by forces other than wartime paranoia over national security.
Reich was researching what even today would be considered “untraditional” ideas in science and medicine, including the discovery of new energy forms within living things. His work’s focus on the function of the human orgasm, or his ties to communist organizations in Europe, also didn’t help.
If advanced, Reich’s theories would have shaken the pyscho-analytical and medical establishments. If Reich was right, whole practices would have to be recast, and patients would be left feeling mistreated and/or victimized.
So the FBI’s harassment of Reich may have had practical, economic and clear political purposes.
It’s unsurprising, then, following the FBI’s determination in 1941 that Reich posed no threat to national security, the Food and Drug Administration started scrutinizing him. By then, Reich was establishing his lab and research center, called Orgonon, in Rangeley. He had become a noted resident, employing locals to tend his property and help him build research devices. Students and researchers from around the world would visit Orgonon.
Despite FDA efforts to derail him, Reich pursued his theories about an undiscovered human energy he believed possible to isolate, harness and measure. If managed, Reich thought this energy could aid humanity. Some of his research documentation will be released this fall, upon his death’s 50th anniversary, as prescribed by his will.
Though Reich’s work would attract the attention of noted scientists like Albert Einstein, the FDA eventually managed to have him arrested, by maintaining Reich was a fraud and his experiments in orgone energy accumulators were useless. Orgone energy didn’t exist, the FDA argued, so any device built to harness it was hogwash.
Yet the FDA couldn’t prove the energy’s nonexistence, so it instead convinced a federal court Reich’s construction and distribution of accumulators as “medical devices” was within its regulatory jurisdiction.
Reich never claimed his devices were a cure for anything.
An injunction prohibited the marketing and distribution of his accumulators. Reich’s writings were burned by the government, some outside his Rangeley lab. Then, when one of Reich’s students violated the injunction by moving accumulators across state lines, he and Reich were jailed for contempt of court.
Defenders of Reich’s estate maintain he had no knowledge of the accumulators’ movement. But before appeals could be mounted on his behalf, Reich died in prison – the victim of an apparent heart attack.
(In FBI documents, it was revealed Reich’s stomach was contaminated with the preservative formaldehyde when the government finally tested his body for possible poisons – tests which, unsurprisingly, proved inconclusive.)
While Reich’s work offended the social mores of 1950s America, it’s likely his ideas could be accepted as possible or plausible today, as numerous alternative medicines are now endorsed, or at least tolerated, by medicine.
Imagine selling the 1950s medical establishment on Reiki, which says energy fields within the body can be manipulated to ease pain and advance healing. Though Reich went deeper – but only in theory and principle – are his conclusions more far-fetched or fantastic than this body-energy concept?
The FDA’s quashing of his research is also a telling story of the times.
Those who proclaim first-hand knowledge of Reich’s concepts in practice are hopeful. Orgone-energy blankets, for example, have reputed success in healing burn victims in Germany, and should have been clinically tested. Yet only a handful of U.S. doctors have glanced at Reich’s work, despite its steady acceptance in Europe.
On July 29, in Rangeley, a conference on Reich convenes, hoping to develop plans on moving his research forward in the United States. It also hopes to discuss how a clinical trial of the blankets could be approved by the FDA.
It would be fitting irony if the agency that aided Reich’s demise authorized research that could legitimize him.
Unfortunately, while medical minds can quicky change, mind-sets of federal bureaucracies rarely do.
Scott Thistle is the Sun Journal’s regional editor. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.