Tag Archive | "origin of life"

Wilhelm Reich’s Bion Experiments: an unusual origin of life research program

"Wilhelm Reich: Bion Experiments"
Contribution to the orgonomy conference, "Wilhelm Reich's Bion Experiments: an unusual origin of life research program, 1934-1939" November 9, 2019, NYC.

Abstract: Wilhelm Reich’s "bion experiments," conducted in Norway from 1934-1939 represent an unusual intersection of many important developments and changes in life sciences research in the 1930s, and it is a case previously overlooked by professional historians of biology and medicine.  The case merits historical research as an addition to the literature on biologists in the 1930s who explicitly used dialectical-materialist philosophy in their work, as a unique chapter of controversy in the development of origin of life ideas originating from psychoanalytic ideas, as a serious critique of the contemporary trend toward increasing reductionism in the life sciences (particularly under the influence of Rockefeller Foundation funding), and for other historiographic issues such as the inclusion of close study of laboratory notebooks.  New narratives about Reich’s work are needed since historians of science have shown recently how problematic are such categories as "pseudoscience," to which Reich’s laboratory work has formerly been relegated.

Dr James E. Strick:

I am originally a microbiologist by training, then I retrained as a PhD in the history of biology and medicine. My research has been in the history of ideas and experiments about the origin of life. I have written about Darwin and his chief scientific supporters debating amongst themselves about the implications of his evolution theory for what was the original origin of life on Earth. Also about origin of life research from the 1950s to the present and how the field was influenced by its first big money patron ever: NASA, the American space agency.

In my 2015 book with Harvard U. Press, I am looking in detail at the origin of life experiments Wilhelm Reich conducted in Oslo, Norway (where he was in exile from the Nazis) in the late 1930s. My aim is to describe the logic of these experiments, and also to explain how this work fits into the context of biology and medicine at that time. Biology and medicine were undergoing a major change of direction beginning in the late 1930s, especially under the influence of funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. I will argue that this and several other pieces of historical context strongly conditioned the reception of Reich’s work by the scientific community.

Reich is well known as a psychoanalytic innovator, founding father of "body therapies," campaigner in the 1920s-30s for reform of restrictions on abortion and birth control, incisive political analyst, whose book The Mass Psychology of Fascism pressed so directly on the political sore spots of both right and left that it was burned by the Nazis and also got Reich expelled from the Communist Party. But Reich’s biological work has been largely overlooked by historians, notwithstanding that his archives at the Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard opened in 2007. Historians of biology are either unaware of Reich the biologist, or, more often, have been convinced by a widespread narrative created after Reich’s conflict with the U.S. government in the 1950s, which led to the burning of his books by the U.S. government. Namely, that Reich’s theory of orgone energy has been used so many times—not least by Martin Gardner and the skeptics groups—as an example of pseudoscience. So often, indeed, that it may prove very interesting to study the origins of that theory in the laboratory. The term "pseudoscience" has been used in an extremely broad-brush way — especially since the "science wars" of the late 1990s — to tar much history and philosophy of science with the same brush as creation science and UFO abduction studies. Thus, this may serve as a test case for whether the label "pseudoscience" does more to clarify or more to distort the history of what occurred.

Reich was originally trained as a physician, then as a psychoanalyst. His interest in biology, like many in the 1920s, began with trying to imagine a middle way between the extremes of neo-vitalism and of mechanism. Like many of those whom Garland Allen has called "holistic materialists," Reich eventually found his way to dialectical materialism as a tool of thought he found quite useful for life sciences trying to find such a middle path. (1) As psychoanalyst, early in his work he recognized that the sexual orgasm was an energy discharge function and that the quantity of energy built up and not discharged was directly proportional to the severity of neurotic symptoms in his patients. This led Reich from 1926 to 1934 to think that what Freud called libido was a tangible something that could be measured quantitatively in a physiology laboratory. Reich hypothesized that the normal sequence of events in sexual excitation was swelling and mechanical tension in the genitals, followed by buildup of electrical charge, then electrical discharge, and finally mechanical relaxation as the swelling of the tissues subsided. Invited by Professor Harald Schjelderup to use a laboratory in the Psychological Institute at Oslo University, Reich began his experiments there early in 1935. He found in human subjects that emotional changes, including those accompanying sexual excitation, were correlated and quantitatively parallel with movement of bioelectrical charge in the body. Reich concluded, furthermore, that the movement of this energy from the core of the body (the ganglia of the autonomic nervous system) out to the skin surface—and the corresponding expansion of the autonomic nervous system—was the physiological action that constituted the pleasure response. Conversely, anxiety was functionally identical with the withdrawal of this energy from the periphery to the core and the contraction of the autonomic nerves and ganglia. Reich hypothesized as a result that this bioelectrical charge moving outward from the core to the periphery was libido.

Reich next asked the question: is this energy common to all living organisms, even a simple ameba with no autonomic nervous system (ANS)? Could one measure a similar increase in charge at the surface of an ameba where it extended a pseudopod "out toward the world"? Was the orgasm formula a general formula for all living organisms?

During this time Reich also pursued another line of logic. Following the logic of Berlin internist and cardiology pioneer Friedrich Kraus, he gathered and systematized knowledge about certain biochemical substances (such as potassium, lecithin, choline) that produce swelling and stimulation of the parasympathetic responses (pleasure, expansion) of the autonomic nervous system; contrasting these with other substances (such as calcium, cholesterin, adrenaline) that produce dehydration and shrinking of the tissues and simultaneously stimulate the sympathetic (anxiety, contraction) responses of the ANS. Thus, in parallel with his thinking about the movement of bioelectrical charge as central to life, he also wondered whether paired combinations of antagonistic biochemicals in a test tube could simulate the alternating expansion and contraction of simple living cells.

Study of amoebas

When Reich went to a biology lab at Oslo University to find out how to culture amebas for his experiments early in 1936, he was told that all he need do was put some old dead hay or grass in water and let it soak for a week or ten days. The amebas would grow in there from "spores in the air." Reich found himself skeptical of this explanation and so he watched the grass for hours and days on end under the microscope, to see whether the amebas came from such spores. What he saw, he says, shocked him.

Over days and even weeks, the grass blades slowly swelled up in the water and began to disintegrate into tiny round vesicles about the size of small bacteria. (He later termed these vesicles "bions.") Many of the vesicles would break free and drift off into the fluid. But sometimes a clump of vesicles would form near the edge of a disintegrating grass blade, and gradually a membrane would form around it.

Over time the vesicles within became more active, pulsating and moving around within the clump, until eventually the entire clump broke free from the margin of the grass blade and moved off into the fluid, with a crawling, "pseudopod"-type movement. These clumps were then indistinguishable from the amebas Reich had been given by the biologist.

Reich performed numerous control experiments to exclude the possibility that his amebas could have come from "germs" falling into his cultures from the air. One was to develop a time-lapse microcinematography setup, to film the entire process over many days. Since at the time there was no standardized equipment for such a procedure, Reich needed considerable technical ingenuity to construct such a system.

In the end, he concluded he had discovered—contrary to biological dogma since Pasteur and Tyndall in the 1860s and ’70s—that protozoa could come into being by "naturally organizing" from dead plant tissues.

Basic Antithesis of Vegetative Life, properties of bions, controls for sterility

In the second, parallel series of experiments, falling within the tradition of what were called "cell model experiments," combining paired antagonistic substances such as potassium and calcium, lecithin and cholesterin, or choline and adrenaline (or combinations of these pairs), Reich found these mixtures often produced active, motile bions. The bions pulsated, moved around from place to place, budded and divided to increase their numbers—Reich was eventually able to transfer them to sterile culture media and grow up a pure culture of a new generation of the same type of bions (a thing never seen in cell model experiments before). They often developed a measurable electrical charge (a strong charge and increased possibility of successful culturability was seen if the bion mixture remained colloidally turbid for hours or more.

The bions also accepted biological stains such as the Gram stain. In other words, they had many properties of living organisms. Reich thought the bions were a transitional stage he had discovered between the nonliving and the living. We cannot know, perhaps, what process Reich was seeing without repeating these experiments; however, these observations, and Reich’s interpretation of them share a great deal in common with the work of nineteenth century scientists such as Pouchet, Hughes Bennett, Bastian and Bechamp.

In order to assure himself that these bions did not come via infection by germs in the air or in the ingredients, Reich sterilized the separate ingredients and then again sterilized the fresh bion mixtures, using boiling, a dry sterilizer at 180 C, and/or autoclaving (sterilizing with steam at 121 C and 15 psi of pressure). To his amazement, all the lifelike properties of the bions were greatly enhanced by these processes. Bions examined immediately after the mixture was taken from the autoclave had a stronger charge, more motility, and a greater likelihood of culturability, for instance. In a still more convincing control experiment, Reich heated some of the soot, coal, iron filings, etc. (used to swell and disintegrate) to incandescent heat in a Bunsen burner flame before plunging them into autoclaved culture media. More lifelike bions still were the result.

Reich called some of these PA (or "packet") bions since they often appeared in packet-like clusters.

These experiments convinced him that almost any kind of matter could be made to break down into bions if it was made to swell vigorously enough by heating, autoclaving, soaking in a potassium solution, etc. The electrical charge of the bions, he believed was energy originally contained within the starting material but released when it swelled and underwent bionous disintegration.

Thus these new experiments seemed to Reich to open up startling new possibilities in biology for understanding the origin of life. Not surprisingly, since he seemed to be making a renewed claim for "spontaneous generation," most biologists who heard of the experiments ridiculed the results and assumed only careless, nonsterile technique could account for them. There was also a significant backlash in the Norwegian press from conservative religious and political quarters, the flames of which were further fanned because of Reich’s fame as a sex researcher. Later even the socialist press joined in the press campaign about Reich’s experiments. More on that in awhile.

Roger DuTeil and key technical issues

In early 1936 Reich met Professor Roger DuTeil of the Mediterranean University Center in Nice, France. A professor of philosophy, natural philosophy, especially biology, was DuTeil’s strongest interest. He had long been interested in vitalism and mechanism, for example. DuTeil took a great deal of interest in Reich’s experiments on bioelectrical charge and emotions, and Reich apprised him in December 1936 of the development of the bion experiments, just as he was tackling the problem of whether the bions could be cultured through successive generations on sterile media. Reich agreed to DuTeil’s offer to carry out replications of key bion experiments and to give a report on them in March 1937 to the Natural Philosophy Society in Nice. More than any other scientist—indeed, almost alone among all other scientists—DuTeil took the time, trouble, and expense required to learn key details of Reich’s technique, spending two weeks at Reich’s lab in Oslo in July and August 1937 in order to fully resolve all his questions and actually see and practice the procedures under Reich’s instruction.

DuTeil also initiated several important control experiments, including a completely closed system in which all ingredients of a bion mixture could be autoclaved in a single, multi-compartmented container, then opening a stopcock to allow the sterile ingredients to combine in a sterile environment. This conclusively proved, in yet another independent way, argued Reich and DuTeil, that no germs or spores from the air could be the source of the bions seen in sterile samples immediately after the mixture was prepared.

"!!!! Wir haben nicht der Naturprozess zu zerteilen—zu verkünsteln, sondern einzig ihn zu rekonstruieren, zu entschlüsseln, in unsere Gewalt zu nehmen—ihn vorwärtszutreiben." Strick: We need not split up the natural process, to overdo it. Rather, only to reconstruct it, to decipher it, to gain control over it— to move it forward.]

DuTeil and Reich exchanged dozens of letters, most between Feb. 1937 and October 1938, just after the Munich crisis and Chamberlain’s capitulation to Hitler, in which many crucial details of experimental technique are discussed. For example, in a letter of 26 April 1937, Reich writes DuTeil:

"Please… tell me whether your microscope is an inclined binocular microscope, or whether the binocular tube is straight like a monocular tube. I believe I have determined that the microscopic observation of bions is very difficult with a single tube and with a non-inclined binocular tube. In contrast, the inclined binocular tube gives wonderfully 3-dimensional [or vivid] images and makes possible observations that cannot be had with a straight tube."

Most essential of these observations was seeing clearly and unambiguously that the pulsatory movement within the tiny bions is sharply distinguishable from the purely physical Brownian movement exhibited by all microscopic objects in this size range. The Brownian movement is a random, place to place motion understood in current physics to be caused by statistically uneven bombardment of the object on all sides by molecules of the fluid. DuTeil took this distinction on board quickly and, as soon as he could see the bions through Reich’s expensive, state of the art Reichert Z research microscope, he agreed that the instrument was crucial to making that distinction decisively. The unusually high magnification this microscope could offer, well above the usual 1000-1500x, was also crucial to seeing these things clearly. None of Reich’s critics ever used a comparable microscope—either failing to appreciate the distinction (even though Reich said in the published report "one cannot repeat the observations unless the same optics are used.") or being unable to afford such an expensive instrument and thus wishing to ignore or talk past Reich’s claim. Reich’s time-lapse films were also remarkably convincing, when audiences saw them, as when DuTeil showed them to some members of the French Academy of Sciences and of Medicine in August 1937 (he also showed the bions through one of Reich’s Reichert microscopes, loaned for the purpose).

Yet none of Reich’s critics ever directly addressed the films. And the difficulty of widely disseminating such films (they could not be published in the book or journal articles discussing the experiments) meant Reich’s critics were at an advantage with audiences who had not seen them. This kind of story occurred repeatedly with many other key technical issues.

Another important scientist who aided Reich and replicated bion experiments was Dutch physicist Willem Frederik Bon.

In November 1938 after reading Reich’s book on the bion experiments, Bon contacted Reich to ask whether he had seen any radiation phenomena in the bions. At that point (though he had been thinking about the possibility since at least May 1937 and thought several observations implied there might be radiation released in bion formation) Reich replied in the negative. Not so just a few months later, however. In January 1939 a new bion culture was prepared serendipitously when Reich’s lab assistant mistakenly heated sea sand instead of carbon to incandescence and added it to nutrient broth and potassium chloride solution. This produced PA bions of a very highly charged, radiating type (Reich called them SAPA, sand-packet bions)

SAPA bions

after successfully culturing them and studying them under the microscope for several weeks, Reich developed severe inflammation of the conjunctiva of his eyes. Complete avoidance of microscope work for days was needed for them to improve. If he looked through a monocular microscope, only the eye looking into the single eyepiece became inflamed. He found the cultures placed on a quartz slide and held on the skin could redden the skin within a few minutes. They could also communicate a strong charge to insulating materials, such as rubber; the charge could be measured with an electroscope. A similar charge could be communicated to the same rubber by allowing it to lie for a few minutes on the bare abdomen of vegetatively lively patients, Reich found, though a far lower charge was picked up by the rubber from patients who were emotionally deadened—reactions parallel to what he had measured via bioelectrical charge of the skin in the erogenous zones in his earlier experiments on emotion.  The powerful biological effects of the energy being radiated by the bions were frightening, and Reich sought help and advice from the physicist Bon, since he had some experience studying radiation.

With both DuTeil and Bon, the imminent European war led to breaking off of contact between Reich and these important scientific collaborators, since both France and Holland were soon under Nazi occupation and neither Bon nor DuTeil had the leisure to think about doing science again for several years. Reich left Oslo for America in late August 1939, on the last ship out before the outbreak of the war, having sent his laboratory on to New York City to be set up by his assistant some weeks earlier. The loss of contact with his two most important scientific supporters and constructive critics was highly unfortunate—especially since the radiation experiments Bon was discussing with Reich are those which led Reich to conclude that the SAPA bion radiation was a previously undiscovered type of energy (he named it orgone energy because of its connection with his orgasm research and because it was capable of charging organic/ insulating substances. Reich believed it was the specific life energy, the energy of all biological organisms). Only a couple of months after reaching this conclusion did Reich lose contact with Bon, and the discussion about this energy with a trained physicist only resumed more than a year and a half later, with Albert Einstein in the US.

We should note that two features sharply distinguish Reich’s research program from the beginning: his pursuit of an energy principle behind emotions and other life phenomena and, most importantly, that his central line of investigation as physician and psychoanalyst was to understand the function of the orgasm. As I said at the outset, Reich made use of the dialectical materialist system of Marxist thought in his biological research program to find a middle way between mechanism and vitalism, as numerous biologists did in the 1930s (such as J.B.S. Haldane, J.D. Bernal, Joseph Needham—the British scientific socialists—as well as Alexander Oparin, Julius Schaxel and numerous others). In 1929 Reich visited the Soviet Union and penned an ambitious synthesis between Freud and Marx titled "Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis" in the Communist Party organ Unter dem Banner des Marxismus.

In discussing Oparin’s 1936 use of dialectical materialist thinking in origin of life research, John Farley pointed out three laws from Frederick Engels’s writings that were important for Oparin: first, the law of transformation of quantity into quality (about origin of life, this amounted to a "greater than the sum of the parts" claim). Second, the law of unity and conflicts of opposites (for Oparin, the dynamism of life arises from the fundamental tension between anabolism and catabolism; that was the driving force behind "genetical change, rather than the static DNA template."(2) Third, the law of the negation of the negation. Again from Farley: "The emergence of new qualities as a consequence of quantitative changes, implies the ‘negation’ of the previous quality, which thereby may prevent the appearance of this quality again. Oparin’s assumption that the very existence of life on this planet negates any further emergence of it, reflects this law."(3)

Though he was careful to separate his experimental results from theory in his 1938 book on the bion experiments, Die Bione, Reich felt it important to include an entire chapter near the end of the book on "The Dialectical-Materialist Method of Thinking and Investigation," claiming it was crucial to conceptualizing and carrying out the bion experiments. But from the outset, and even in his 1929 paper, it is clear that for Reich the pursuit of a quantitative energy principle is a key methodological focus. He seems to see this as an implicit conclusion from dialectical materialist science as he understood it. Only gradually, perhaps not until 1938 or 39, did Reich come to recognize that other "dialectical materialist biologists" did not share this key element of his own approach.(4)

For Reich, the "not just the sum of the parts" logic of dialectical materialism meant that the difference between living and nonliving matter was "not constituted by the addition of something new in living matter that makes it alive. Instead, the difference lies in a special combination of functions which are found singly in nonliving matter as well….[Namely,] the specific combination of the rhythmic alternation of tension, charge, discharge, relaxation, renewed tension, charge, etc. is the fundamental distinguishing characteristic of life."(5)

Like Oparin, Reich concluded that the origin of life was only conceivable as a series of developmental stages. But unlike Oparin and Haldane, Reich did not feel compelled to assume either that the process must always require millions of years, or that it could no longer be occurring under the conditions of present-day Earth. Development, Reich concluded, was driven dialectically "by the presence of opposites within matter which cause an antagonistic contradiction." He went on:

[t]he opposites force a change in the situation, and something new is formed. This new something…develops new contradictions, which in turn force further solutions, and so on…In the mechanistic view, [Reich said, by contrast], the opposites are absolute and irreconcilable. In dialectical materialism, opposites are viewed as identical [i.e., different manifestations of a common, deeper substratum], and as a consequence one can develop out of the other. Hate is not merely an opposite of love, it can develop out of love; much conscious love is unconscious hate, and vice versa.(6)

Further, claimed Reich,

Mechanistic science…represents the standpoint that development [can only be] a gradual process….There are no sudden changes. The materialistic dialectic, on the other and, recognizes that gradual development can become sudden development, that evolution prepares the way for sudden change in development…Mechanistic as well as idealistic philosophy denies that it is possible for quantity to develop out of quality, and vice versa. In contrast, dialectical materialism asserts that not only can quantity convert into quality…but that this change-over is one of the fundamental principles of any natural process.(7)

Unlike Oparin and Haldane’s basically biochemical approach, Reich, coming from a physician’s viewpoint, claimed "a fundamentally dialectical materialist approach requires that the organism be examined as it is, that is to say, that life be studied in the living state," first and foremost. Moreover, said Reich:

This approach is diametrically opposed to the mechanical one in which, for the sake of reliability, living objects are killed in order to study life in the dead organism, a procedure that is bound to result in a mechanical view of life…If scientific research is to be truly productive, it should be continuously motivated and guided by the need to view the whole without losing sight of the detail. Mechanical concepts of life must of necessity be methodologically defective; they rely on the synthetic movements of the living substances becoming more complex and perhaps giving rise to life. The important thing about life, however, is not the complex substance but the complex function. Concepts such as Biogen, molecule, energid, etc. are only practical aids to understanding….They try to substitute the action of "substance" for the understanding of function. They tell us something only about the mechanical-chemical process, but they become metaphysical when called upon to explain function.(8)

This is certainly a more aggressive, fundamental critique of physical-chemical reductionism in biology than Oparin, Haldane or Bernal were making in 1938 (or perhaps, ever). But for Reich it was this aspect of mechanism that led physiologists to describe the nerve pathway by which an impulse traveled and yet to think that explained the impulse itself. And to viewing the organism "in sociological terms," with the brain as "the ‘central agency,’ the ‘controller’…, rather like the ruler of a country."(9) For Reich, since the brain is a phylogenetically recent structure and since numerous organisms have no brains but still live quite successfully, the brain is unlikely to be the origin of living functions. Indeed, the "tension/charge" formula basic to living functioning was present in all living tissue; it was the sine qua non of life, Reich claimed.

Thus, it is important to understand how different the two features I mentioned made Reich’s approach to these questions from all other biologists of the time—so much so that by 1939 or so Reich realized these differences were more important than what he shared in common with dialectical materialism and so he decided to call his approach by a different name—energetic functionalism (or orgonomic functionalism), to reflect its key features and to make clear that (as he put it a few years later) "energetic functionalism of today has as much to do with dialectic materialism as a modern electronic radar device with the electric gas tube of 1905." Reich’s understanding of how truly unique his research approach was, emerged and crystallized through responses such as Bernal’s, and through the fierce campaign of opposition that developed in Norway to his bion research. Let us turn to a look at those who became Reich’s opponents.

Otto Lous Mohr was a prominent geneticist, well-connected in international biology circles (including having been a grantee of the Rockefeller Foundation) from having trained with T.H. Morgan’s famous Drosophila research group at Columbia U. twenty years earlier. Mohr was a prominent liberal/socialist voice in shaping reforms in Norwegian society based upon scientific knowledge. His wife Tove, an ob/gyn, was (as her mother had been before her) the nation’s most outspoken advocate for legalized abortion, women’s economic independence, and for sex and birth control education in the schools. Mohr was her partner in all these causes and was a critic of the over-simplistic use of eugenic ideas, for example to justify laws for sterilizing the insane. Since Reich was famous as a left-wing advocate of these very same causes, it seems at first blush quite puzzling that Mohr should not only not find Reich a natural ally, but quickly became a leader among Norwegian scientists opposed to Reich. There are several pieces of this story.

Havard Nilsen has argued persuasively that Norwegian socialists turned against Trotsky in late 1936 (after having enthusiastically welcomed him as a guest to Norway a year before) because of intense pressure from their Soviet superpower neighbor, and that after Trotsky’s expulsion in Dec. 1936, the perception of Reich as a Trotskyite also led him to fall out of favor among those in power in the Norwegian Labor Party. Mohr was well aware of the Trotsky situation. But secondly, once he believed Reich’s bion work to be scientifically flawed (in Sept. 1937, based at least in part on the opinion of Kreyberg, which I will discuss in a moment)—after reaching that conclusion, Mohr would have been extremely anxious to distance himself from Reich, lest by association, Reich would bring ill repute to those causes Mohr held most dear. Max Hodann, famous sex reformer and a supporter of Reich (he witnessed some of Reich’s bion expts on 2 April 37 in Oslo), had given a public talk in Oslo at Mohr’s invitation in January 1937, and Mohr had thought Hodann excessively ambitious in his ideas for sex reform, naïve about the local details that really mattered in building effective alliances. Hodann had also, without asking Mohr’s permission, prematurely announced after his public talk a sex education program Mohr told him about for which Mohr had not yet gotten final approval from the Oslo School Board. Mohr was quite miffed and said so in a letter to Hodann, since this might endanger the delicate alliances Mohr had labored to forge, and cause victory to be snatched out from under him at the last moment. In this context, it’s entirely possible that—even before ever knowing about Reich’s laboratory science—Mohr viewed Reich as similarly over-ambitious in his sex reform propaganda and feared that his activities in conservative, Lutheran Norway could undermine Mohr’s painstaking investment of years’ work to create solid laws for sex reform there.

Leiv Kreyberg was a young scientist who’d already made a name for himself as a researcher on gentics of cancer in experimental mice. He was a protégé of Mohr, who was campaigning in Fall 1937, while Rector of Oslo University, to get Kreyberg appointed to the Chair of Pathological Anatomy (in which he succeeded in early Dec. 1937). In Sept. 1937 Reich (not knowing this) approached Kreyberg at the Oslo Radium Institute Hospital, trying to obtain fresh cancer tissue from patients there for his research. Kreyberg took an interest in Reich’s experiments and visited his lab to witness some, but then after taking a bion culture back with him to his own lab he abruptly pronounced that it contained "nothing but staphylococci from common air infection." This despite the fact that Reich had been studying Staphylococci for a year (obtained from a patient with osteomyelitis), and he pointed out that they had a positive electrical charge, while the bions in the culture he had given Kreyberg were negatively charged. Kreyberg then used his influence to prevent Reich from getting cancer tissue samples from the Radium Hospital and publicly claimed (based only upon that single culture Reich gave him) that he had "controlled" Reich’s bion experiments and found Reich’s sterile technique inadequate. In an independent assessment 15 years later, US Embassy representative William Kerrigan—we are extremely lucky that the State Department undertook this investigation, that Prof. Jerome Greenfield obtained these documents from their files with FOIA, and that the embassy official was so thorough in his investigation and resourceful in documenting information about motives the participants in the debate did not publicly admit to:

An assessment of the scientific standing and reputation of Professors Kreyberg and Thjøtta is extremely difficult and possibly of questionable accuracy. This is so because there is no precise yardstick by which the attainments of either man can be measured. For example, Professor Kreyberg is the only professor of pathology in the whole of Norway, and Professor Thjøtta is the only professor of bacteriology.

The biographic data contained in the Norwegian Who’s Who for Professor Kreyberg shows three published works, two of them published in 1937, the third in 1947. On the other hand, Professor Thjøtta’s biography in the Norwegian Who’s Who shows a long list of published works and memberships in several learned societies, including the Society of American Bacteriologists.

In an attempt to assess the reputations of the two men, Professor Harald Sverdrup, Director of the Polar Institute of the University of Oslo was consulted. Professor Sverdrup is a world famous explorer and authority on the arctic. He has an unassailable position in the scientific world and a reputation for the highest type of intellectual integrity. In commenting on Professor Kreyberg, Professor Sverdrup said that he would accept Professor Kreyberg’s scientific opinions only if they were accompanied by corroborative evidence from some other source. He said that Professor Kreyberg tended to be hasty and careless in his judgments and was also a very high strung and emotional person. He stated that Professor Kreyberg tended to take very strong personal likes and dislikes and if, for example, in the Reich case he had taken such a dislike to Reich or his theories, his emotional reactions would override any scientific objectivity he possessed."   [Ask me in Q&A, and I will tell Froydis Langmark story, who independently said the same about Kreyberg’s animosity toward Reich, based on personal knowledge of Kreyberg as his own student]

Theodor Thjotta, a bacteriologist, had looked at a few sample cultures of Reich’s bions in April 1937 when Reich’s assistant Odd Havrevold [SLIDE 33] had persuaded Reich to send them to Thjotta for identification by a professional bacteriologist. Thjotta had little to say until a major press campaign against Reich’s work broke out a year later. [SLIDE 34] Then he, like Kreyberg, publicly opined that the cultures contained "nothing but common air infection bacteria." Kerrigan (1952) again:

As to Professor Thjøtta, Professor Sverdrup said that he had considerable confidence in his scientific judgments, and said that Thjøtta was not the man to utter any hasty and ill-considered judgments on any scientific questions. He said that Professor Thjøtta was personally a somewhat difficult and abrupt person, who would be very likely to give a more curt and unpleasant answer than the situation might call for, but that basically he would be very careful in expressing his opinions in scientific matters."

Johann Scharffenberg was a psychiatrist by training who was well-known for twenty-five years already for participating in just about every public polemic that occurred in Oslo by the time Reich came. He declared Hitler a psychopath in 1935, while simultaneously lobbying hard for a eugenic sterilization law for criminals and the insane in Norway, almost as forceful as the 1935 German law. Almost a generation older than Reich, he had a highly moralistic approach to psychiatry. Again, from Kerrigan:

His attacks on Reich were the most violent and sustained of the entire controversy." (1952 US Foreign Service Despatch, Greenfield papers) "Mr. Sigurd Hoel – a novelist and one of Norway’s most outstanding literary figures] described the press attacks by Dr. Scharffenberg…and ascribed them not to Scharffenberg’s disagreement with Reich’s biological theories, which were the ostensible subject of Scharffenberg’s attacks but rather to Scharffenberg’s fright and horror at Reich’s sexual theories. Mr. Hoel described Scharffenberg as being an extremely eccentric man who has refused to marry because, as Scharffenberg once publicly stated, there had been insanity in his family background and he was afraid that the strain of insanity might be transmitted to any possible offspring that he might have. Mr. Hoel obviously considered that Scharffenberg did not have the normal adult attitudes toward sexual matters and his attack on Reich was actually an indirect attempt to cover up for his own personal inadequacies in that direction….Professor Sverdrup professed the very highest regard for his [Scharffenberg’s] intellectual and moral honesty. I put the question to him as to whether in the Reich case Dr. Scharffenberg’s personal ethical attitudes and his attitudes on the subject of sex might not have been deeply offended by Reich’s very unorthodox views and that those views might not have furnished the actual basis for Scharffenberg’s attacks on Reich. Professor Sverdrup said that in view of Scharffenberg’s opinions on sexual and ethical questions it was by no means unlikely that he may have found Reich’s sexual ideas deeply disturbing and as a result have used them as a basis for his attacks on Reich, which attacks of course had another ostensible basis."

In a case in which the experimental outcome is underdetermined by the evidence, Kerrigan, though not a trained historian, realized it is appropriate to explore other possible motivations for objections to Reich’s work, such as the religious reaction to Reich’s sexual theories or to experiments that suggest a naturalistic origin of life. In this case, much more local circumstances are also suggestive. Another major one of these is Rockefeller Foundation research funding. In January or February of 1937, the famed anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, now living in London, a colleague of Reich who greatly respected his work, contacted the Rockefeller Foundation office in Paris to urge Foundation officials to consider funding Reich’s bion research. In late February, Foundation officer Tracy B. Kittredge interviewed Reich on a visit to Oslo and encouraged him to apply for a grant. On the same trip, Kittredge visited other Rockefeller Foundation grantees in Oslo and asked them their opinion of Reich’s bion work, including geneticist Otto Mohr and physiologist Einar Langfeldt at Oslo University. Though Mohr and Langfeldt had not visited Reich’s lab or seen any of the experiments in progress, the University Medical Faculty was asked by the Norwegian government in early 1938 to pass on whether the importance of his research justified an extension of his visitors visa, and on that occasion the faculty had heard enough through the rumor mill to convince them that "there was no reason to extend his stay."  Kittredge’s inquiry to Mohr and Langfeldt produced the reply that in their opinion, as a laboratory scientist, Reich was "a charlatan."(10) (All this, from Rockefeller Foundation Archives). As a result, the Foundation turned down Reich’s grant application fairly quickly after he submitted it in early March. At a time when the Rockefeller Foundation, during the Depression, was basically the only major source of large-scale funding for life sciences research, and when Mohr, Kreyberg, Thjotta and Langfeldt were all themselves at just this time applying for large RF grants, it seems at the very least suggestive that these Oslo University scientific allies should work together to so unanimously torpedo the chances of an outsider, to compete with them for that pot of funding.

As a result of the organized campaign against him, Reich eventually found his ability to work in Oslo so limited that he opted to emigrate to the US.

Conclusions, Changes In Biology and Medicine in the 1930s

First, let me say that based on my work so far, including examining most of Reich’s laboratory notebooks and time-lapse films for 1935-1939, it seems clear that Reich’s bion experiments were serious, careful science, fully up to the standards of sterility of the period. Based on all the evidence to date, I conclude that Reich’s experiments did not get a fair scientific hearing. Most of his opponents overlooked or talked past Reich’s most important replies to their criticisms, or were unaware to begin with that they were missing crucial details of his technique. No researcher besides DuTeil ever came close to adequately replicating even a single experiment during the 1930s debate. And because of their large implications for biology, these experiments deserve a serious scientific reevaluation.

The lab notebooks show, furthermore, that the experiments developed pretty much in just the order Reich reports them in his book Die Bione (The Bion Experiments), up through Sept. 1937 or so when that book went to press. Reich did not indulge, in other words, in that habit common to many scientists, of retrospectively reconstructing the sequence and the logic of events in order to present a story that looks more as if the scientist foresaw the outcome (the part afterwards seen as important) at the outset and ordered all the experiments in just the most logically compelling sequence to lead to that outcome. All dead ends, groping in the dark, wrong hypotheses abandoned when one suddenly realized another explanation more likely—in other words all the messiness that actually constitutes the laborious work of science—often disappears entirely from these retrospectively polished accounts. Reich criticizes this approach as dangerously misleading, especially to the public and to young scientists in training. And it appears that he lives up to his self-imposed standard in his own publication. The danger is particularly great in pioneering science that is truly off the beaten track—what Thomas Kuhn calls "revolutionary, or paradigm-changing science," as opposed to workaday "normal science" filling in pieces within an existing paradigm. And this distinction seems potentially relevant to Reich’s line of research.

One of my most important interpretive offerings has to do with the Rockefeller Foundation. The director of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Natural Sciences Program, physicist Warren Weaver, had an outspoken agenda for decisions about what research would get funding. His goal was to import the tools of physics and chemistry (the ultracentrifuge, electron microscope, electrophoresis, Xray crystallography, etc.) into the life sciences and thus to make them more reductionist and more mechanistic. Only thereby did he think progress could be made on the central problems of the life sciences, which he believed would all yield to explanations based on the structure of critical macromolecules, like proteins and nucleic acids. Because Rockefeller Foundation money was "the only game in town" during the Depression years, the influence of Weaver’s agenda was greatly magnified. Reich’s emphasis on an energy principle, his insistence on giving priority to studying tissues in the living state, and his belief in the older doctrine of colloids as important (rather than macromolecules) were in sharp distinction with this agenda. Thus, it is not surprising that Reich’s ideas might find themselves "outside" of the Old Boy network of peer reviewers for RF grants. [Mitogenetic radiation had similarly been discredited by 1935-37 experiments funded by the RF; similarly, "field theory" in embryology.]

Reich’s research agenda, as described, pursues a fairly clear, straight line of logical development from his initial inquiry into the function of the orgasm and the physical nature of the energy behind psychic drives. Vitalism by contrast was in many ways becoming completely discredited by the late 1930s. Its association with Nazi ideas further guaranteed its absolute loss of any scientific respectability by the 1940s. So research programs like Reich’s, attempting to create a middle way between vitalism and mechanism, looked much further "away from center" after the mainstream shifted so far in the other direction under the influence of RF funding, and of MANY other forces. Haldane, Bernal, etc. followed the mechanistic current, and any non-mechanistic understanding of "energy flow in living organisms" was soon lost to view by the mainstream, so powerful was the new chemical-physical tide, especially at generating profitable products for the increasingly powerful pharmaceutical industry. The net result: a research program that could have seemed like a respectable, if minority view in the mid-1930s, would look almost hopelessly old-fashioned and out of date by only a decade later in the new world of "molecular biology," with the gap widening further ever since. Hopefully this historical study contributes to understanding how that chasm developed and has shown it is not primarily because Reich’s bion experiments ever got a fair hearing before the scientific community. It may turn out that orgone energy does not exist, but that would still not necessarily indicate that the bion experiments were pseudoscience, nor that Reich saw nothing but contaminant bacteria from inadequate sterile technique. It would be fascinating to find out what he actually did see.


(1). Garland Allen, "Mechanism, Vitalism and Organicism in Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Biology: The Importance of Historical Context," Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. Biomed. Sci. 36: 261-283 (2005); idem., "Rebel with Two Causes: Hans Driesch," in Oren Harman and Michael Dietrich, eds., Rebels, Mavericks and Heretics in Biology (New Haven: Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 37-64; also Anne Harrington Reenchanted Science (Princeton U. Press, 1996).

(2). Farley, J. The Spontaneous Generation Controversy from Descartes to Oparin (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1977), pp. 171-172.

(3). Ibid, p. 172.

(4). By 1940 or so, Reich was explicitly avoiding the language of dialectical materialism and using the new term "energetic functionalism" to emphasize the break that he now recognized from his earlier intellectual roots. He left instructions for future editors of a second edition of Die Bione, insisting that "dialectical materialism" should be changed throughout to "energetic functionalism." See Reich (1979), p. v. On Schaxel’s version of dialectical materialist biology, see Hopwood (1997).

(5). Reich, Die Bione (1938), Engl. trans. The Bion Experiments on the Origin of Life (1979), p. 137; emphasis in original..

(6). Reich (1938), Engl. trans. (1979), pp. 153-154; emphasis in original.

(7). Ibid, p. 154; emphasis in original.

(8). Ibid, pp. 150-151.

(9). Ibid, p. 151.

(10). RF Archives, Albert Fischer of the Rockefeller Institute in Copenhagen would also likely have given Reich a thumbs down if he was consulted, based on a disagreeable exchange he had with Reich after Reich visited his lab in December 1936 to demonstrate bion preparations. Reich, PT, p. 269.

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