RANGELEY, Maine – Physician-scientist Wilhelm Reich, best known for his claims of a cosmic life force associated with sexual orgasm, died in federal prison, and the government burned tons of his books and other publications and destroyed his equipment.
But half a century later, a small number of scientists and other believers are working to advance the European-born psychiatrist's work on what he called "orgone energy" — a theory largely forgotten in the scientific mainstream.
"Personally, I think it's going to be a long time before all of his work is understood and recognized," said Reich's granddaughter, Renata Reich Moise, a nurse-midwife and artist in the coastal town of Hancock.
Reich died on Nov. 3, 1957, in a federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., where he was sent for ignoring an injunction obtained by the Food and Drug Administration that outlawed a device he called an orgone energy accumulator. Reich believed it could charge the body with essential life energy, heightening vitality and potentially helping to heal disease.
Critics point to some of these more unconventional ideas in deriding him as a quack. But supporters say he was a brilliant man whose ideas warrant further exploration.
The 50th anniversary of his death is being marked by a major exhibition on Reich and his work that opens Nov. 15 at the Jewish Museum in Vienna, the city where he attended medical school, began his psychiatric practice and studied under Sigmund Freud.
Also this month, archives of Reich's unpublished papers, which have been stored at Harvard Medical School, will become available to researchers for the first time. Reich had stipulated that his papers only be opened 50 years after his death.
He also specified that his laboratory at the 175-acre site he dubbed Orgonon, which overlooks Rangeley Lake, be converted to a museum. It opened in 1960.
In Rangeley, where Reich spent his latter years, scientists and doctors from the U.S. and Europe gathered this summer for a conference that explored the prospects of seeking FDA approval for clinical trials of orgone accumulator blankets to treat burn victims.
Reich is described by the American Psychoanalytic Association as "one of the most brilliant, creative and controversial of the pioneering analysts." He was the first to focus on character analysis rather than neurotic symptoms. He linked a healthy sex life, which he called "orgastic potency," to emotional wellness, believing that failure to discharge sexual energy resulted in neurotic disorders.
His more controversial work came after he veered away from psychotherapy into laboratory experiments in Norway that led to the discovery of what he called "bions" — basic life forms that gave off orgone energy.
After moving to the U.S. just before the start of World War II, he focused on isolating and collecting that energy and went on to test its effect on cancer.
His orgone accumulators eventually caught the attention of the FDA.
After an investigation, the agency branded the devices consisting of alternating metallic and nonmetallic materials a fraud. In 1954 it sought an injunction in U.S. District Court in Portland. Reich refused to appear in court, triggering a default judgment and order that his books and accumulators be destroyed.
He was sentenced to two years in prison for contempt of court. He served only eight months before he died of a heart attack.
The FDA's injunction, supporters say, had a chilling effect on his work that persists even today. Moise said she believes there's merit in the orgone accumulator blanket, which her mother used in her medical practice.
Moise has tried it herself to heal burns.
"It's not crazy. It actually works," she said.
Even as the anniversary-related events rekindle memories of Reich and his theories, some of his supporters worry that they are in a race against time.
The challenge, they say, is to keep his work alive and advance it through new studies and experimentation at a time when Reich is not being taught in either medical schools or physics classes.
Kevin Hinchey, who is writing a book about Reich's work in the U.S., said most of the doctors and scientists who've taken an interest in Reich's life are baby boomers.
"If something dramatic isn't done to bring his work before the medical and scientific community, I really wonder what's going to happen when the baby boomers die. There's not a lot of younger people who are reading Reich."