Some Notes on Wilhelm Reich, M.D

Stephen Barrett, M.D.
February 15, 2002

Wilhelm Reich, M.D. (1897-1957) claimed to have discovered “orgone energy,” the most powerful force in the universe, and wrote extensively of its manifestations. Physical scientists, however, were unable to find the slightest evidence in Reich’s data or elsewhere that such a thing as orgone exists.

Born in Austria, Reich obtained his medical degree in 1922 and, after graduate studies in neurology and psychiatry, became the first clinical assistant at Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalytic Ployclinic in 1922 and the clinic’s first director in 1928. In 1930, he moved to Berlin where he helped establish a program for sexual education for young people. During his early days as a psychonalytic, Reich made important observations about the nature of human character and how to deal with character structure in therapy. But as time went on, he became increasingly paranoid and preoccupied with bizarre theories [1].

In the late 1930s, Reich left Germany in order to to escape the Nazis [2]. In 1940, after a short stay in Scandinavia, he established the Orgone Institute Research Laboratories in Oregon, Maine, where he designed and built “orgone accumulators.” Most of them were boxes of wood, metal, and insulation board about the size of a telephone booth. But he claimed that disease could be cured by sitting inside the box and absorbing the “orgone energy” that the box supposedly trapped. Hundreds of the boxes were sold or leased to practitioners and laypersons for treatment of all kinds of diseases, including cancer. Rentals were around $250 per month. When the FDA sued in 1954 for an injunction to stop the hoax, Reich told the court that neither it nor the FDA would be capable of understanding his orgone science, and therefore he would not offer a defense. The injunction was then issued based on the Government’s evidence. When Reich continued to promote the box for treating the sick, he was prosecuted for contempt of court. Found guilty, he was sent to federal prison, where he died in 1957 [3].

William Reich, The Man Who Dreamed of Tomorrow, written by two of his advocates with a forward by Reich’s daughter Eva, states that between 1940 and 1950, Reich became convinced that a subtle biophysical energy permeates all living things and that:

The orgone is mass-free; permeates all of space in different concentrations; is responsible for all forms of life; is taken into the body through breathing; is present in all cells. . . is especially drawn to water; and forms units, both living . . . and nonliving . . . . [that] acquire energy from their environment. . . .

Based on his work with the chronically ill, notably cancer patients, Reich emphasized that all diseases could ultimately be best understood as imbalances in the orgone energy system. . . .

Reich uncovered a method of accumulating orgone from the atmosphere. . . . He stumbled onto the fact that a metal-lined box “produced” or accumulated this new energy. . . .

The main purpose of using the box is to gain additional orgone, which Reich found to possess healing potentialities [4].

From the beginning of his difficulties with the United States Government, Reich attempted to pose as a martyr and to make his case a cause célèbre. His followers have continued this effort. Destruction (by court order) of seized labeling material on the accumulator devices has produced accusations of “book burning.” Actually, the only publication destroyed by the U.S. Government were those that accompanied the illegally marketed devices that the government seized [3].

Reich’s concepts related to “orgone energy” still have a following today. The American College of Orgonomy (ACO) and the Journal of Orgonomy, founded during the late 1960s by disciples, remain active; and a few companies here and abroad market orgone accumulators, blankets, various articles of clothing, and an orgone “pulsator” said to “keep the energy in the room at normal levels and change any negative life energy back to positive life energy without overcharging or undercharging the space you live in.” [5] The ACO, located in Princeton, New Jersey, offers training, holds an annual conference, and markets educational materials. The American Board of Medical Orgonomy, which the ACO established in 1973, offers “certification” to physicians who have “a minimum of three years of courses and seminars in medical orgonomy; characterologic restructuring by an approved medical orgonomist; and satisfactory completion of written and oral examinations.” [6]

Many Web sites portray Reich as a misunderstood and persecuted hero. The most comprehensive sites include the Orgone Biophysical Research Laboratory (OBRL) and the Public Orgonomic Research Exchange (P.O.R.E.). OBRL, now located in Ashland, Oregon, is directed by James DeMeo, Ph.D., who began investigating Reich’s work in 1970 and founded OBRL in 1978. P.O.R.E. includes archives of the court documents from 1954 through 1957 related to his prosecution by the FDA.

  1. Morrock R. Pseudo-psychotherapy: UFOs, cloudbusters, conspiracies, and paranoia in Reich’s psychotherapy. Skeptic 2(3):93-95, 1994.
  2. Melton J, editor. Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology, 4th Edition. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2001, pp 1297-1298.
  3. Janssen WF. The Gadgeteers. In Barrett S, Jarvis WT, editors. The Health Robbers: A Close Look at Quackery in America. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1993, pp 321-335.
  4. Mann WE, Hoffman E. William Reich, The Man Who Dreamed of Tomorrow. Wellingborough, England: Thorsons Publishing Group, 1990
  5. P.O.R.E. online catalog, accessed Feb 15, 2002.
  6. The College. ACO Web site, accessed Feb 15, 2002.

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This article was posted on February 15, 2002.