Wilhelm Reich (1897 – 1957)
The latest practitioner of the art of quackery to come under our microscope is the Austrian-American psychoanalyst, William Reich whose principal claim to fame or notoriety revolved around his alleged discovery of a primordial cosmic energy which he called Orgone.
Graduating in medicine at the University of Vienna in 1922, Wilhelm became deputy director of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical outpatients’ clinic, the Vienna Ambulatorium. It was there that he started developing his theories about neuroses which, he claimed, were rooted in physical, sexual and socio-economic conditions. From 1924 he published a number of papers promoting the idea of orgastic potency or the ability to release the emotions from the patient’s muscles and to lose the self in an uninhibited orgasm. Reich’s methods were somewhat unorthodox – his massaging of a patient’s muscles was undertaken while they were disrobed and he travelled the streets in a mobile clinic promoting adolescent sexuality, as well, to the shock of the conservatively Catholic Vienna at the time, contraceptives, abortion and divorce. His critics, of whom there were many, called him the prophet of a better orgasm or the founder of a genital utopia.
In 1939 Reich moved to New York to escape the growing Nazi threat and the following year announced his discovery of orgone, a word blended from the two principal components of organism and orgasm, which he claimed was a panacea for many evils. Orgone was everywhere, he believed, the northern lights, St Elmo’s Fire and the blue colouration of sexually excited frogs being manifestations of the life force. More importantly for where he was taking his theory he claimed that cancer cells and red corpuscles were charged with it.
Reich began building insulated Faraday cages to concentrate the orgone, calling them orgone accumulators. He began experimenting on mice with cancer and plants but soon turned his attentions to Homo sapiens, his first box for human use being built in December 1940 out of plywood with rock wool and sheet iron with a small chair inside in which the patient sat, naked of course. By July 1941 Reich was so encouraged that he was claiming that orgone was definitely able to destroy cancerous growth. Tumours in all parts of the body, he claimed, were disappearing or diminishing, something nothing else currently available was able to achieve.
Naturally, Reich had no licence to practise medicine but that didn’t stop him starting to treat patients suffering from cancer or schizophrenia. Eventually, however, although some might argue not before time, he came to the attention of the authorities and was the subject of a major investigation by the American Food and Drug Agency. They concluded that they were dealing with “a fraud of the first magnitude”. The Attorney for Maine then stepped in filing a complaint to prevent interstate shipment of orgone accumulators and to ban Reich’s writings which promoted the use of the machines. Reich refused to attend the hearing, claiming that the court was not capable of evaluating his work and was arrested for contempt of court, sentenced to 2 years in jail and fined $10,000. In a scene reminiscent of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 six tons of his books and writings were burned in a New York incinerator on 23rd August 1956.
Reich was diagnosed the following year as suffering from paranoia with delusions of grandeur and died in the November of a heart attack whilst still languishing in jail.
During the 1968 student uprisings in Paris and Berlin protestors used copies of Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism to lob at the police, probably the best use to which his works were ever put.