James E. Strick, Wilhelm Reich, Biologist. (London: Harvard University Press, 2015). 467pp. ISBN 9780674736092. (hardcover), £31.95
by Matei Iagher
In his biography of Wilhelm Reich (1983), Myron Sharaf began the section on Reich’s scientific work with a warning that he did not have the requisite competence to judge this scientific work, and that the existing literature on this aspect of Reich’s work was too unreliable to be used in making a critical assessment. This caveat could be read as a challenge for historians of science, but as the Reich archives only became available in 2007, the task of providing a competent, historical account of Reich’s biological work also had to wait. The wait has not been in vain, as with James Strick’s Wilhelm Reich, Biologist we now have a balanced and thoroughly researched account of Reich’s experimental work in the 1930s, which is likely to become the standard for any future historical investigation of Reich’s work.
Outside of a small circle of researchers and aficionados, Wilhelm Reich’s name does not immediately evoke associations with laboratory biological research. Rather, he is much more well-known as a psychotherapist, a psychoanalyst and Freudian dissenter, and above all, as a forefather of the 1960s sexual revolution and as an intellectual source for later American and European counterculture. Much of the popular image of Reich is, even today, glazed over with an unsavory patina—an echo of the sensationalist reporting that tarnished his reputation in the 1950s, when the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also made him the target of a witch hunt (Reich’s books were burnt, and he was eventually imprisoned for contempt of court). Part of the aim of Strick’s book is to destroy this popular, pseudo-scientific aura that hangs around Reich, by showing that some of his most controversial theories were rooted in serious, cutting edge research.
Methodologically, the book draws on an extensive engagement with the Reich archive (his laboratory notebooks, correspondence, research and personal images), which is used to reconstruct Reich’s working methods, theoretical commitments and the process whereby he obtained his results. In addition, this is very much a book about debates in early twentieth century biology (and Reich’s place within them) as well as a book about changing paradigms in the life-sciences. The word ‘paradigm’ is not accidental, as Strick mentions Kuhn, and particularly his notion of ‘revolutionary science,’ more than once, as a way of describing Reich’s biological work. As he writes in the introduction: ‘Scientists, then, whose names we associate with revolutions—Copernicus, Newton, Lavoisier, Darwin, Pasteur, Semmelweiss—all, by definition, faced staunch, often irrational resistance to their ideas, not least from the established scientific authorities of their day. I argue that Reich’s work on biogenesis in the bion experiments, and certainly the visceral reactions it provoked, need to be understood in this light’ (p.8). This is pretty illustrious company, to say the least, but it reflects Strick’s sense that Reich drew the short straw of history and that he deserves a posthumous rehabilitation.
Wilhelm Reich, Biologist thus sets out to perform this rehabilitation, by examining Reich’s theoretical and experimental work in biology, undertaken in Oslo between 1934-1939. The book’s seven chapters chart Reich’s discovery of the ‘bions’ (microscopic particles that Reich saw as intermediary between inanimate matter and life) and outline the process by which Reich tried (and ultimately failed) to get his research validated by the wider academic community. As Strick’s focus is on Reich’s work as a biological researcher, the book contains only scattered remarks about Reich’s work as a psychotherapist and a psychologist in the 1930s. It is regrettable that Strick did not explore the connection with psychology in more depth, both in the case of Reich himself, as well as by comparing Reich’s forays into biology with those of other contemporary psychologists (such as Freud and Jung, for example, who both based their psychological systems on biological theories). Sulloway’s Freud, Biologist of the Mind (1979) or Shamdasani’s Jung and the Making of Modern Psychology (2003) might have helped to further contextualise the question of why an early twentieth century psychologist would look toward biology as a way of vindicating and expanding upon his psychological theories. At the same time, I can find no argument (other than the book’s already substantial length) for why the narrative does not continue beyond 1939, and into Reich’s American years.
The book’s first chapter (pp.16-63) examines the intellectual context of Reich’s experimental work, surveying the relevant debates in the turn of the century research in the life sciences (mechanism/vitalism, the concept of a specific life-energy, holism, dialectical materialism) and also surveys Reich’s personal journey from Viennese psychoanalyst to origin of life researcher. Chapter 2 (pp. 64-98) then proceeds to outline the process whereby Reich discovered the bions. As Strick explains, Reich was early on struck by an analogy between the amoeba’s extending of a pseudopod and the erection of the penis (p.61, 75). In a rather androcentric way, Reich argued that human sexuality in general was ‘functionally equivalent’ to the protist’s reaching out ‘toward the world’ with its pseudopod. Sexual arousal was rooted in the autonomic nervous system, which Reich claimed was a protozoan structure still present in the metazoan organism. Strick then traces the way in which Reich’s work on human sexuality precipitated his turn towards laboratory science.
After moving to Oslo in 1934, Reich began to study the bioelectric potential of the human skin. The conclusion of this study was that ‘the sexual process, then, is the biological-productive energy process per se’ (73). As Strick shows, it was this idea that, around 1936, led Reich to study the electrical charges of microorganisms like the amoeba. The discovery of the ‘bions’ followed from there: Reich was instructed to soak moss in water for ten to fourteen days in order to obtain a fresh culture of amoebas. Unsure of, or unconvinced by the explanation that amoebas came from spores present everywhere in nature, Reich proceeded to observe the process under the microscope. He concluded that before protozoa were formed, a series of vesicular shapes (i.e. bions) could be clearly seen detaching from the moss and then assuming some of the signs of life, such as motility and inner pulsation. The bions could be further cultivated through successive generations, using various preparations. Over time, through variations in the ingredients, Reich was able to produce bions with different properties.
In chapter 3 (pp. 99-145), Strick charts Reich’s dialogue and collaboration with Roger du Teil, a French philosopher who took an early interest in the bion work, and who offered to perform control experiments and to lobby on behalf of Reich’s theories among his French colleagues. This chapter allows Strick to go into more depth about the criticisms that were leveled against the bions, such as the fact that Reich was merely looking at bacteria picked up through air contamination, or that the lifelike movement he was observing was merely Brownian movement. As Strick convincingly argues, both of these critiques fell wide of the mark. Reich took particular care to sterilize his preparations, over and above what normal sterilization procedures at the time would have required. In one such instance, he burned soot to incandescence, before sticking it into his culture media (p.133). Such temperature would have been enough to kill off any common bacteria. Curiously however, Reich’s bions formed faster when the preparations where boiled than when they were not. Regarding the issue of the lifelike movements of the bions, Strick notes that Reich was using a state of the art microscope not usually available to most laboratories at the time and that the failure of other researchers to identify these movement was also due to a lack of requisite high-end apparatus (p.102, 127).
In chapter 4 (pp. 146-185), Strick halts the narrative in order to discuss Reich’s theoretical commitments and methodology. As Strick argues, Reich considered his dialectical-materialist method (later rebranded as ‘energetic functionalism’) as essential to understanding his work on bions. The chapter is an interesting case study of what constituted the scientific-method for Reich (as opposed to other contemporary dialectical materialists such as Alexander Oparin or J.D. Bernal) and serves as a prelude to chapter 5, which discusses Reich’s work on cancer. As Strick shows, Reich had theorised (on the basis of his own materialist ontology) that cancer was an endogenous disease, brought about by bions formed from disintegrating organic material, well before he ever looked at cancer tissue under the microscope. In chapter 5 (pp.186-217), Strick traces the development of Reich’s ideas about cancer and the experiments (some of them frustrated by his falling out with one of the main cancer specialists in Oslo) he devised to test them.
While Reich’s ontology was no doubt productive in setting him on the track of an original cancer theory, the public articulation of that ontology may have well have set him up for the response that followed from his Norwegian colleagues. As shown in chapter 6 (pp. 218-269), Reich was the target of a bitter press campaign meant to discredit his work, and, as some hoped, to get him to leave the country. As Strick shows, in ‘the small town of Oslo,’ the academic establishment did not take kindly to a dialectical materialist who was also a Jew, with no formal training in biology, and who evinced a radical stance toward sexuality and unorthodox ideas about the origin of life and cancer. As Strick also demonstrates, Reich’s Norwegian detractors had a vested interest in attacking Reich and his work: they were competing for the same funding from the Rockefeller foundation, the only major funding body around in the Depression era (p.227). The book’s seventh chapter (pp.270-310) seeks to bring the story full circle, by returning to the issue of the specific life-energy first broached in the first chapter. This final chapter thus charts Reich’s discovery of the radiating ‘SAPA bions’ and his eventual conclusion that the energy emitted by these bions was the specific life-energy or, as he began to call it in 1939, ‘orgone.’
In the Epilogue, Strick asks himself: ‘Is this story of purely historical interest?’ (311). The answer, one is led to believe, is clearly ‘no.’ Much like Hasok Chang, who has put forward the idea of a history and philosophy of science that functions as ‘complementary science,’ Strick is interested in the way in which historical knowledge might be useful in uncovering and helping to reinstate forms of scientific knowledge that have been obscured or deliberately left out in the development of scientific disciplines (Chang, 2004). At the same time, to ask what relevance Reich’s work might have today is a question that follows from the attempt to take Reich’s work seriously—something which, as Strick reminds us, few historians and scientists have done before. And to take it seriously means to consider the proposition that Reich was indeed looking at something real, that his bions were not merely the imaginary constructs of a deluded dilettante. Strick’s work makes the reasoned case that Reich was indeed on to something. What that something might be is not for the historian to decide. Nevertheless, Strick seems to write for more than just a historical audience, and biologically minded readers might want to pick up on some of the suggestions that are scattered throughout the book. Even so, as Strick shows, Reich’s work diverged so radically from everything that happened in biology in the decades since the discovery of the bions that it may prove as difficult to give it a fair hearing today as it was in the 1930s.
Matei Iagher obtained his PhD in the History of Medicine from UCL in 2016, with a thesis about the history of the psychology of religion. He is now working on turning his dissertation into a monograph.
Chang, H. (2004) Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Shamdasani, S. (2003) Jung and the Making of Modern Psychology: The Dream of a Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sharaf, M. (1983) Fury on Earth: A Biography of Wilhelm Reich. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Sulloway, F.J. (1979) Freud, Biologist of the Mind: Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend. London: Burnett Books.