RANGELEY – Wilhelm Reich was a scientist. A physician. An inventor. An inmate. A much-studied man who remains something of a mystery, now 50 years after his death in a federal prison.
This man who gained acclaim and, to some degree, notoriety for his research will be the focus of a conference here at the end of July. More than 85 doctors, scientists and researchers from Europe and the United States, and others interested in Reich, will gather to discuss what his work means today and how it should be advanced.
The conference is expected to be more of a call to action than a simple memorial to a man whose devotees consider him a persecuted genius ahead of his time. Critics, including the Food and Drug Administration, have called him a “crackpot” and a “quack.”
Today Reich and his research should be given new consideration, especially in a country where alternatives to traditional medicine are rapidly gaining acceptance, said Dr. Ron Maio, a professor of emergency medicine and the director of the Office of Human Research Compliance Review at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor.
“The way the FDA (claims to have) disproved him, especially in today’s standards, is not scientific at all,” said Maio, who will participate in a panel discussion on how to possibly get FDA approval for clinical trials for treating burn victims with orgone-energy blankets, one of Reich’s experimental medical instruments.
Anecdotal evidence from a doctor in Germany, who will also attend the conference, has shown remarkable results with the blankets, Maio said. “So to go back and to say what the FDA did 60 years ago proved Reich was wrong is totally erroneous,” Maio said. “I think the issue was that people thought he was a communist, people didn’t like the fact that his theories were somewhat controversial and they concentrated on this idea of sexual energy and thought he was some kind of perverse old man or something.”
Contrary to the view that led to Reich’s work being dismissed and discredited, Maio said he sees merit in orgone energy research, examining the natural energy of the atmosphere.
“I don’t think these people are a bunch of goofballs, that’s for sure,” Maio said. “I think it merits an objective scientific look as much as any of the other types of alternative therapies out there that are being evaluated.”
This year is significant for those who study Reich, said Kevin Hinchey, associate director of the Wilhelm Reich Museum in Rangeley and a board member of the Wilhelm Reich Infant Trust. The museum sits on 160 acres, the site of Reich’s former home and laboratory overlooking Dodge Pond and the place where his body is entombed.
According to the scientist’s will, his archives were to be, “put away and stored for 50 years to secure their safety from destruction and falsification by anyone interested in the falsification and destruction of historical truth.” The half-century release date comes in November.
“When we say there’s interest in Reich, there’s really no interest in Reich in the traditional medical and natural scientific and psychiatric communities in this country. There isn’t any. He’s a peripheral figure, he’s dismissed, he’s ridiculed or he’s unknown,” Hinchey said. And most of Reich’s critics have never even bothered to read any of his books, Hinchey said.
“So any interest in Reich and his archives and commemorating 50 years of his death is really a relatively small, loosely knit community of several thousand people throughout the world, and that’s the problem,” Hinchey said.
Reich ended up in federal prison after nearly two decades of researching what he believed to be a previously unknown energy that exists in all living matter and in the atmosphere. Reich called this energy “orgone” and believed it could be collected, harnessed and used for a variety of purposes. He was particularly interested in using orgone for the experimental treatment of illness and disease and developed methods to do so.
His Orgone Energy Accumulator was originally developed as a small box. This box was comprised of alternating layers of organic and metallic materials, that could contain orgone radiation, from microscopic cultures, for observation and measurement. Later, accumulators were used in experiments on cancer mice. Finding promising results in this research, Reich built larger accumulators for the experimental treatment of and prevention of diseases in human subjects.
Ultimately, his use and distribution of accumulators led to an FDA investigation which Hinchey said was sparked by a 1947 article in the New Republic magazine which falsely stated Reich was, “building accumulators of orgone energy which are rented out to patients who presumably derive orgastic potency from it.” An FDA inspector showed up at Orgonon with a copy of the article in 1947 at the onset of the inquest.
Convinced accumulators were worthless devices that Reich was promoting for both sexual and medical purposes, the FDA launched a seven-year investigation into his work.
The FDA charges led to a complaint for injunction in 1954 that declared that, “orgone energy is non-existent,” and ordered Reich to stop distributing accumulators and literature on orgone. The complaint also ordered Reich to appear in court to respond, which he refused to do.
By entering into a court case with the FDA he would, in effect, be agreeing that the agency had authority over natural science research.
The federal court in Portland, with Judge John D. Clifford on the bench, also refused in 1954, according to Associated Press reports from the time, to allow a group of doctors to testify on Reich’s behalf and demonstrate that orgone energy was not a “pseudo science.”
“If Dr. Reich’s works are destroyed we as physicians and this nation and its people will suffer irreparable harm,” said James A. Willie, a New York doctor, testifying on behalf of the demonstration. “If accumulators are not employed, a great many patients who need this type of therapy will be retarded in their recovery.”
The complaint for injunction was then issued on default and ordered the destruction of accumulators and literature. The FDA forced the dismantling of accumulators in Rangeley and also oversaw the burning of Reich’s books, some outside his lab there. Another several tons of his literature were burned in a New York City incinerator.
The injunction decree also prohibited the moving of accumulators from state to state, so when a student of Reich’s did so in 1955 – taking a truckload of accumulators from Maine to New York City, without Reich’s knowledge – the court ruled Reich and the student, Michael Silvert, to be in contempt and sentenced them both to prison, where Reich died on Nov. 3, 1957. He was 60 years old.
Reich’s imprisonment and the destruction of his work had a chilling effect on medical researchers studying his theories in the U.S., Hinchey said.
“We sort of feel it even today,” he said. “One of the purposes of this conference is to gather people from around the world who are involved in practical applications of Reich’s work. Because the idea that another 50 years is going to go by in America and people are not going to start exploring and benefiting from Reich’s medical and natural scientific work is really appalling. It’s just appalling that his work basically came to an abrupt halt in the late 1950s.”
Freud, Einstein and Hoover
Even before his controversial battle with the federal government, Reich had gained acclaim as a doctor and researcher.
In the 1920s he worked with Sigmund Freud and was known as one of the finest psychoanalyst of the era. In the 1930s he began his laboratory research in Oslo, Norway where he discovered orgone energy in 1939. In 1941, a little more than a year after emigrating to the U.S. he met with Albert Einstein twice in Princeton, N.J. to discuss his research.
In the 1950s in Maine and eslewheres in the United States, Reich became known for his experiments with the cloudbuster, a scientific invention which he theorized could be used to affect the weather, primarily by the destruction and creation of clouds. He was even widely credited, according to newspaper reports from the time, with saving a Maine blueberry crop from drought in 1953.
Prior to his fatal run-in with the FDA, Reich was the subject of intense investigations by J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation.
For seven years the FBI investigated Reich for his involvement with communist groups in Europe and later over concerns he was dabbling in the development of nuclear devices at his laboratory.
In 2000, the FBI released to the public nearly 800 pages of records it had on Reich, clearing his name to some degree. (The papers are accessible at http://foia.fbi.gov/foiaindex/reich.htm)
“In 1947, a security investigation concluded that neither the Orgone Project nor any of its staff were engaged in subversive activities or were in violation of any statute within the jurisdiction of the FBI,” according to the agency.
Reich’s own published records are prolific and extensive. Exceeding 7,000 pages, he wrote extensively on politics, science, medicine, his research methodology and even art. Much of his writing has been distributed in book form by his estate via major publishing companies.
A common question for those studying his life is, “When did he sleep?” Hinchey said.
Reich remains an enigma, his medical and scientific legacy vastly misunderstood in the United States, with much of his reputation being based on only his earliest psychoanalytical work, some of which involved the study of the function of the human orgasm.
By the 1950s Reich’s newly built Orgone Energy Observatory and the work he was doing there was grabbing the attention of the print media in Maine, but according to a report in the Lewiston Daily Sun on Sept. 7, 1950, his work was already well-known around the world.
Reich came to the United States in 1939 from Oslo, Norway. He taught at the university there and later at the New School for Social Research in New York City, the report stated. It also described a property gated and marked by “no trespassing” signs. One of Reich’s associates at the time, Dr. Elsworth Baker, explained the signs and gates were only to “guarantee peace and quiet for intensive scientific non-political research, which could not be carried on successfully with constant interruptions.”
Reich’s relationship with the press was tumultuous. Hinchey said an article printed in the New Republic in 1947 reported Reich claimed he had discovered a cure for cancer in orgone and that the energy accumulator was actually meant to increase “orgastic potency.” Reich made neither claim.
The advent of the Internet and online publishing has further complicated efforts to keep Reich’s legacy as an important scientist and medical researcher intact, according to Mary Higgins, who has been the trustee in charge of Reich’s estate since just after his death.
That anybody can publish anything without fact-checking or editing and then broadcast it worldwide has complicated the already difficult task of keeping the facts on Reich straight.
Now in her 80s, Higgins remains a tireless defender of Reich’s work and his intentions, believing the stance Reich took in the defense of scientific research, and his willingness to go to prison rather than compromise his principles, is only one example of his impassioned character.
“He easily could have saved himself, but he couldn’t if he was to protect his work,” Higgins said.
Wilhelm Reich in the 21st Century: 2007 International Conference on Orgonomy will be held July 29 to Aug. 1 at Orgonon and Saddleback Mountain in Rangeley. To register, call 864-3443 or e-mail [email protected] For more information, go to www.wilhelmreichmuseum.org.