RANGELEY – It was 50 years ago that physician-scientist Wilhelm Reich, best known for his discovery of a purported cosmic life force associated with sexual orgasm, died in federal prison, his books burned and his equipment destroyed by the government.

Ridiculed at the time, the European-born psychiatrist is today largely forgotten and his work on what he called orgone energy remains outside the scientific mainstream.

But a small number of scientists and other believers are working to advance his studies – and resurrect his reputation.

“Personally, I think it’s going to be a long time before all of his work is understood and recognized,” said Reich’s granddaughter, Renata Reich Moise, a nurse-midwife and artist in the coastal town of Hancock.

Reich died on Nov. 3, 1957, in a federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., where he was sent for ignoring an injunction obtained by the Food and Drug Administration that outlawed the interstate transportation of his orgone energy accumulator.

The FDA’s injunction, supporters say, had a chilling effect on Reich’s work that persists even today. That’s a shame, Moise said, because she believes there’s merit in the orgone accumulator blanket, which her mother used in her medical practice.

Moise has tried it herself to heal burns. “It’s not crazy. It actually works,” she said.

The 50th anniversary of his death is being marked by a major exhibition on Reich and his work that opens Nov. 15 at the Jewish Museum in Vienna, the city where he attended medical school, began his psychiatric practice and studied under Sigmund Freud.

In New Jersey, the American College of Orgonomy, which provides training and research support for physicians and others interested in Reich and his legacy, scheduled a conference and dinner to coincide with the anniversary.

Also this month, archives comprised of nearly 300 boxes of Reich’s unpublished papers that were placed in storage at the Countway Library at Harvard Medical School will become available to researchers for the first time.

Before going to prison, Reich directed in his will that the scientific papers, journals and diaries only be opened 50 years after his death.

He also specified that his laboratory at the 175-acre site he dubbed Orgonon that overlooks Rangeley Lake be converted to a museum.

In Rangeley, where Reich spent his latter years, scientists and doctors from the U.S. and Europe gathered this summer for a conference that explored the prospects of seeking FDA approval for clinical trials of orgone accumulator blankets to treat burn victims.

Reich is described by the American Psychoanalytic Association as “one of the most brilliant, creative and controversial of the pioneering analysts.” He was the first to focus on character analysis rather than neurotic symptoms. He linked a healthy sex life, which he called “orgastic potency,” to emotional wellness, believing that failure to discharge sexual energy resulted in neurotic disorders.

His more controversial work came after he veered away from psychotherapy into laboratory experiments in Norway that led to the discovery of what he called “bions” – basic life forms that gave off orgone energy.

After moving to the U.S. just before the start of World War II, he focused on isolating and collecting that energy and went on to test its effect on cancer.

His orgone accumulators eventually caught the attention of the FDA.

Critics seize on some of his more unconventional ideas in deriding him as a quack. But supporters say he was a brilliant man whose ideas warrant further exploration.

Even as the anniversary-related events rekindle memories of Reich and his theories, some of his supporters worry that they are in a race against time.

The challenge is to keep his work alive and advance it through new studies and experimentation at a time when Reich is not being taught in either medical schools or physics classes.

“If something dramatic isn’t done to bring his work before the medical and scientific community, I really wonder what’s going to happen when the baby boomers die,” said Kevin Hinchey, who is writing a book about Reich’s work in the U.S. “There’s not a lot of younger people who are reading Reich.”


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