Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) was an Austrian-American psychoanalyst who claimed to study a form of energy he called orgone energy. He fled Europe during the run-up to World War II because he was both of Jewish descent and a communist sympathizer, and emigrated to the United States, settling in Rangeley, Maine. His field of study, "orgonomy", was essentially a form of vitalism that claimed that orgone energy was the fundamental energy of life, and was particularly expressed in sexual activity. Despite his crackpottery, however, Reich's orthodox work on psychology -- called character analysis, which both built upon and departed from Freud's psychoanalysis -- proved to be quite influential to future generations of psychoanalysts.
As is often the case with such "discoveries," Reich spent a great deal of time and effort on his belief without ever actually successfully proving it, even going so far as to get Albert Einstein in on an experiment (which results, however, Einstein found unimpressive). In particular, Reich believed that orgone energy could be used to great effect in both medical and engineering applications, building "orgone accumulators" (actually, capacitor-like cabinets said to concentrate orgone on the human inside) and special orgone cannons called cloudbusters said to be able to force clouds to rain. Reich also had some highly idiosyncratic points of view regarding microbiology, claiming that cells were made up of smaller units called bions (essentially blobs of orgone-charged protoplasm), and that these bions aggregate into protozoa and then eventually into larger animals and plants. His application of the orgone hypothesis even extended into cosmology and astrophysics, claiming that galaxies were in fact huge clouds of orgone energy.
As Reich attempted to discover more about orgone, he became increasingly self-aggrandizing and paranoid as he failed to gain any traction in the scientific world. (Reich's "bions" were suspected to be bacteria by outside observers, and much like Prosper Blondlot's N-rays in 1903, orgone energy itself proved to be illusory.) He became aggravated over this rejection enough to collaborate with cartoonist William Steig (a Reich supporter) on a screed called Listen Little Man! published in 1948, lambasting the scientific establishment for ignoring his work.
Amid much suspicion about the sexual aspects of orgonomy and the general lack of supporting data outside the Orgonon campus in Maine, Reich had much of his writing and equipment seized by the United States Food and Drug Administration in 1954. Some of his writings were taken to the local garbage dump and destroyed in the incinerator, which allows Reich's modern followers to point and say "They burned his books!". The heavy-handed court injunction, which allowed the FDA to take such action against Reich, was handed down because Reich didn't appear in court to defend himself. His decision not to appear in court stemmed from a combination of personal friction with his lawyer, and a sense of himself as a Christlike martyr figure unjustly persecuted by those who were emotionally incapable of accepting the obvious truths of his discoveries.
The injuction forbade Reich or any of his
cult followers colleagues from transporting orgone accumulators across state lines. Officially, Reich told his colleagues to stop sending out accumulators, but unofficially there was much winking and nudging in his "instruction." Eventually, one of his colleagues got caught doing so, and Reich was arrested. At his trial for violating the injunction, Reich didn't deny the allegations; instead, he did his best to come across as the poor, downtrodden champion of Truth and Justice being suppressed by the evil establishment. The jury didn't buy it.
Reich ultimately was sentenced to Federal prison for contempt of court, where he died in 1957, just prior to being eligible for parole.
The Orgonon campus is now the Wilhelm Reich Museum, and Reich still has supporters in the alternative medicine community.
Reich's arrest and trial were dramatized in a play by Robert Anton Wilson, entitled Wilhelm Reich in Hell.
 In popular culture
Orgonomy got a boost in the general culture in 1971, with the release of a very daring full-length (84 min.) movie W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism by Serbian director Dušan Makavejev, starring the notably beautiful (and immodest) Milena Dravić as Milena, a Serbian woman who sets out to seduce a Russian ice skater.
The fictional narrative takes second place to a montage of documentary sequences, some highly relevant to Reich's life and work, others merely exploring the role of sex in contemporary society. In one notable sequence, the plaster-caster Nancy Godfrey shows how to make a plastic model of an erect penis. Her model is the valiant Jim Buckley, then editor of Screw magazine.
Roger Ebert included this work in a list of Great Movies.
- Wikipedia:Wilhelm Reich
- Gardner, Martin. Fads and Fallacies In The Name Of Science, Dover Publications, 1957, ISBN 0486203948.
- Skeptic's Dictionary on Reich and Orgone
- A Skeptical Scrutiny of the Works and Theories of Wilhelm Reich
- Some notes on Wilhelm Reich - Quackwatch