A Skeptical Scrutiny of the Works and Theories of WILHELM REICH

As related to


By Roger M. Wilcox

Last modified 20-June-2013

The main work in which Reich describes his discovery of bions and his claims about their properties is his 1937 work Die Bione zur Entstehung des vegetativen Lebens, more commonly known as simply Die Bione.  Not until 1979 did Derek and Inge Jordan translate this work from the German; its English title is The Bion Experiments on the Origin of Life, or just The Bion Experiments.  "Bions," according to The Bion Experiments, are microscopic structures which Reich claims are half-way to being living cells.  Bions are composed of smaller microscopic vesicles that are supposedly created by the slow disintegration of organic matter in water.

Note: Between 1942 and 1945, Wilhelm Reich published a series of articles in his International Journal of Sex Economy and Orgone Research that were later compiled together as Der Krebs and, in 1948, translated into English under the rather unwieldy title of The Discovery of the Orgone, Volume II: The Cancer Biopathy.  In it, Reich defined "bions" not as half-living aggregates of vesicles, but as the vesicles themselves.  For the purpose of this critique of bions that you are reading right now, I shall use the term the way Reich defined it in The Bion Experiments.

Reich originally wanted to examine live amoebae under the microscope.  He'd read Rhumbler and Hartmann's description of the cytoplasm of living amoebae, and how it appeared to flow from one part of the cell to another (modern documentaries on PBS or the Discovery Channel show this effect quite often).  He wanted to see if they also exhibited the pulsations predicted by his "tension-charge" formula:

"In the course of about fifteen years of clinical work, I came to recognize a formula for the function of the orgasm which was verified in subsequent experiments [said experiments described in The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety].  In vegetative life there is a process through which mechanical filling, or tension, leads to a build-up of electric charge; this is followed by electrical discharge, which, in turn, culminates in mechanical relaxation."
    — The Bion Experiments, ch. 1, p. 19
However, his research took a decidedly different turn when he learned that in order to get an amoeba culture to look at under a microscope, all you had to do was soak some dried grass in water for about two weeks.  The prevailing theory at the time as to why this should produce amoebae was that the "germs" of amoebae were floating around in the air.  Martin Gardner, in a piece he wrote in 1951 denouncing Reich, also mentions that dried-out dormant amoebae, called "cysts," can be stuck to the surface of leaves or grass as well as floating around freely in the air.  Soaking a cyst in water, whether or not it's attached to a leaf or grass blade at the time, reconstitutes and reanimates it.  (A description of the lifecycle of an amoeba, including its cyst stage, can be found at http://martin.parasitology.mcgill.ca/jimspage/biol/Amoeba.htm.)  Today, thanks to the electron microscope, we can see these "airgerms" and cysts.  Other kinds of microorganisms besides amoebae may also dry up into a dormant state; their dormant forms are called either cysts or spores, depending on their size.

Reich rejected the airgerm hypothesis before he ever looked through a microscope, but he didn't come right out and say why he did so.  Apparently, he believed that his tension-charge formula predicted that the edges of the grass would, over the course of expanding and contracting, pinch off and produce the amoebae all by themselves; i.e. that the grass would cause amoeba abiogenesis.  He also, somewhat alarmingly, touted his own ignorance on the subject of microbiology as a thing to be proud of:

"My own knowledge of protozoology was woefully inadequate.  Nevertheless, trusting my basic theoretical knowledge of biology and relying on the experience that I had gained in the last few years in the therapeutic and experimental investigation of the orgasm function, I took the risk of venturing into what was for me new territory.  To begin with, I deliberately avoided making a new study of specialized biological literature, so that I could pursue my observations in an unprejudiced manner.  I had one of my assistants compile a review of the literature."
    — The Bion Experiments, ch. 2, p. 26 [bolding mine]
Lest the reader fall into the same trap of ignorance that Reich did, I should define a few basic terms from microbiology before I continue.  All living organisms, with the exception of viruses, are comprised of one or more cells.  Biologists divide cells into two broad categories: eukaryotes, large cells which have a cell nucleus at their center containing all of their DNA, and prokaryotes, small cells whose single DNA strand hangs in a loose bundle.  Eukaryotes include amoebae, paramecia, and the cells of all multicellular organisms (including humans); they range in size anywhere from 10 microns (thousandths of a millimeter) across, up to 300 microns across in the case of amoebae.  Prokaryotes include all bacteria and range in size from 1/3 of a micron up to 10 microns.  Viruses are no bigger than 1/10 of a micron and are usually smaller; they are considered "submicroscopic" because they are too small to see with a conventional light-based microscope (although an electron microscope is capable of resolving viruses).

From the Botanical Institute in Oslo, Reich got a grass-and-water infusion with a few amoebae in it.  He put the preparation under the microscope for a couple of days (he didn't say precisely how long), and observed it at regular intervals.  He observed the grass swelling in the water and breaking down into little vesicles, some scattered and irregular, others organized into regular clumps with definite borders.  There were vesicular clumps bulging off the plant's border and vesicular clumps floating free of the plant.  One free-floating clump that he watched for 4 hours seemed to acquire its own border and take on the appearance of an amoeba.  He occasionally passed a weak electric current through the slide and observed the streaming innards of both the original protozoa and these new amoeba-like clumps of vesicles accelerate.

Given our modern knowledge of amoebic cysts, we can get a pretty good idea of what Reich was seeing from the following paragraph on page 28:

"An amoeba slowly moving by was caught up near the edge of the field, where it then dried up and assumed a spherical shape, at which point it was indistinguishable from the many clumps of vesicles surrounding it."
I'd bet you dollars to donut-holes that the vesicular clumps the grass "disintegrated" into were actually cysts that had been stuck to the grass and were too small to see before they started taking on water.  Had Reich come to this conclusion at this stage, and attempted to publish the results of his experiment, he might have gotten it accepted by one of the peer-reviewed journals of the time, and would then and now be credited as the discoverer of amoebic cysts.  But Reich had a much grander theory to bolster.  He declared instead that the grass, which consisted solely of its own plant cells, disintegrated into the vesicles, and that these vesicles became the amoebae, and that this was how the earliest amoebae formed on Earth.

Reich may have been inspired in this view by the work of Günther Enderlein.  In 1925, Enderlein wrote a book titled Bakterien Cyklogenie ("The Life Cycle of Bacteria"), in which he claimed that a plant protein he called a "protit" could polymerize into "spermites" (which he believed were viruses) and thence into bacteria and finally into fungi.  It is likely that the structures Enderlein observed were not, in fact, what he thought they were (c.f. http://www.mold-survivor.com/a_modern_scientific_perspective.html).  Nevertheless, Enderlein's work was published a decade before Reich began his bion experiments, and even if Reich had "deliberately avoided making a new study of specialized biological literature," he may very well have heard of Enderlein's work beforehand.

Reich repeated his experiment with grass and moss that he placed into water himself (as opposed to a preparation he'd received from a lab that already had some living protozoa in it).  He got the same result: the grass swelled and broke down, and aboeba-like organisms eventually appeared.  Also, he saw organisms swell up and break off from the edge of the plants that looked and moved like paramecia rather than amoebae.  Perhaps he had observed parameciic cysts in addition to amoebic cysts.  But Reich was convinced these organisms, like the amoeba-like ones, were formed entirely from vesicles that had once been part of the substance of the plant's cells.  Since he observed these paramecium-like creatures shrinking into spheres and stretching into elongated forms as they ate other vesicles, he named them org-animalcules or org-protozoa, after "orgastic contraction."  He did not think to look for a cell nucleus, or the lack thereof, in these organisms as a means of distinguishing them from "normal" eukaryotes, primarily because the nucleus (and the DNA it contains) was not known to contain genetic material until the 1950s.  (Nuclei are also difficult to see if the sample is not stained; they look like a transparent disc inside the eukaryote, which itself looks like a transparent sack of goop.)

One thing that should set off an alarm-bell for any microbiologist reading The Bion Experiments is Reich's description of his microscopy techniques.  He used a conventional transmission light microscope, the only kind available at the time the bion experiments were performed, but reported routinely using magnifications of 1500x, 1650x, 2000x, and even 3000x when looking at individual vesicles and the inner workings of his org-protozoa.  Yet even today, magnifications of greater than 1400x exceed the upper limits of the effective magnification possible with conventional optics.  Beyond about 1400x, it is impossible to get better resolution with a light microscope — greater magnifications merely enlarge the objects being observed and give the details a blurred, indefinite border.  Something that appears as a tiny dot at 1400x will only appear as a blob twice as big across at 2800x, even if the object is actually smaller, and there will be no way to discern its actual shape.

In fact, this problem comes up so frequently in Reich's microscope work that I've devoted a separate critique to it, titled The problems with Reich's use of the microscope, in which I delve more thoroughly into the reasons why magnifications above 1400x are useless.

One thing is clear: Due to the lack of resolution available at magnifications greater than 1400x, we should probably take Reich's descriptions and photographs of the fine details within his grass blades, vesicles, "org-protozoa", etc., with a grain of salt.  Even his reports of the speed with which a single vesicle or a group of vesicles oscillates are suspect, as the blurriness at such great magnifications can make the quick, short movement of a small object appear as though it's covering a much greater distance; this can even make plain old Brownian motion resemble a living organism darting about.  And more importantly, although Reich didn't report the physical lengths of the vesicles he observed (we can only infer their lengths from the photographs that list their magnification), we do know that bacteria, such as the common E. coli, are less than 10 microns in length and can be as short as 1/3 of a micron.  The lumps, or vesicles if you prefer, inside a normal amoeba are also around 1-10 microns across.  It is entirely possible that Reich's limited viewing resolution would have made a bacterium indistinguishable from a part of an amoeba's internal structure, or from a number of other small objects the same size, and that any or all of these could have been the "vesicles" that Reich saw.

Not content with using organic materials that were recently alive, Reich decided to try his experiment again with dirt instead of grass.  From the beginning, the dirt contained crystals with "the occasional vesicular formation quivering between the crystals and some elongated, luminescent green, anucleate rods moving slowly."  These were probably bacteria already present in the dirt and water; some bacteria are rod-like in shape and, being prokaryotes, have no nucleus.  After letting the preparation soak for several days, Reich saw clumps of dirt with vesicles in them moving as though they were alive, striations in the dirt that had "broken down" here and there into vesicles, and eventually even whole crystals of earth that had turned into vesicles.  Reich seemed to believe that the moving clumps of dirt had literally come to life.  He prepared another infusion, replacing the water with "0.1 N potassium chloride".  (There are two possibilities for what this "N" might stand for.  One party assures me that "N" is the German abbreviation for "Molar," i.e. moles of potassium chloride per liter; but in modern English-language chemistry, "N" is the abbrieviation for "Normal," i.e. moles per liter of potassium chloride divided by an unspecified "equivalence factor".  The only way to know for sure which kind of "N" Reich used would be to find the translators of Die Bione and ask them.)  The potassium chloride solution, he figured, would cause the dirt to swell faster.  After waiting for the formation of vesicles, he added some dilute red gelatin, and saw the following:

"Amoeboid structures, which previously had not been present and which had not formed in the preparations without gelatin, were observed in the various preparations after just a few hours and were completely developed after one to two days.  These structures, which I called 'pseudo-amoebae,' crawled around in various directions in the preparations with jerky movements.  They formed clusters of vesicles, with occasional single rods protruding from their edges like moving spines."
    — The Bion Experiments, ch. 2, p. 46 [emphasis in original]
A photograph of one of these "pseudo-amoebae" appears on the facing page as Figure 35.  It looks like a small, scattered colony of tiny ovoid grains.  The magnification used to take this photograph is not listed in its caption, but the main body of the text implies it was 2000x, which would put it beyond the limits of good light-microscope resolution.  What could this collection of vesicles be?  What could Reich have been seeing?  Recall that Reich admitted to having little or no experience with microbiology.  As such, Reich had no knowledge of what a colony of bacteria looks like under a microscope.  The "pseudo-amoeba" may have been nothing more than a couple of bacteria, stuck in the gelatin, who divided over enough generations to form a small colony.  The seemingly alive clumps of dirt Reich had observed may also have been nothing more than a bacterial colony that grew within the dirt clump and was now big enough to push it around a little bit.  We can't know for sure unless and until a real microbiologist, who does know what a colony of bacteria would look like at a ghastly 2000x light-microscope magnification, reproduces Reich's experiments and sees things that resemble the pictures in The Bion Experiments.

To "eliminate any doubts" that he was seeing abiogenesis and not merely some dreaded "airgerms" that had infiltrated his preparations, Reich turned to sterilizing his preparations by boiling them for 30 minutes in closed glass containers.  He noticed that the formation of vesicles was more rapid in these boiled preparations than it had been in his unboiled ones; in fact, he described motile vesicles visible immediately after boiling (while the preparation was still hot — which gives us a hint that Brownian motion may have played a role in his observations).  What he didn't describe are the steps he took to ensure that the sterilized preparations remained uncontaminated while he transferred them from their boiling vessels to the microscope slide.  There are also some species of bacteria that can survive, and in fact thrive, in extremes of temperature.  There is also a chance that amoebic cysts can survive boiling, and may even reconstitute more rapidly when boiled for a short period — but I honestly don't know enough about the properties of amoebic cysts to hazard a guess one way or the other on such an issue.

As described in chapter 4 of The Bion Experiments, Reich also enlisted the assistance of an acquaintance, Roger du Teil, in duplicating his experiments in a hermetically-sealed environment.  He hoped this would silence his critics who claimed that airborne bacteria had gotten into his samples.  However, even Myron Sharaf says of Roger du Teil:

"A man of broad interests and great personal charm, he had published a book of poetry as well as psychological and philosophical works.  Du Teil had a theoretical interest in problems of biogenesis but apparently had done no experimental work prior to his association with Reich."
    — Sharaf, Fury on Earth, ch. 17, pp. 225-226
It seems that du Teil had no more prior experience with microbiology than Reich did.  His controls are just as suspect as Reich's.  Indeed, when du Teil's duplication of Reich's experiments fell under attack by critics who suspected that his conditions were not as sterile as he claimed, his only defense was to declare that it was "unnecessary to be a director of research or a Nobel Prize winner to know how to work correctly under sterile conditions in a laboratory."  A Norwegian cancer specialist, Leiv Kreyberg, examined a sample of a bion preparation Reich had given him, and pronounced the vesicles to be simple Staphylococcus bacteria resulting from air infection.  Kreyberg also claimed Reich was ignorant of basic bacteriological and anatomical facts, which Reich countered by claiming that Kreyberg had failed to recognize live cancer cells under high magnification when Kreyberg had visited Reich's laboratory.  (It's questionable whether the things Reich showed to Kreyberg were actually cancer cells, though.  See my critique of The Cancer Biopathy.)

In viewing his new "sterilized" preparations, Reich payed special attention to the "pseudo-amoebae."  He continued to do minor electrical experiments with his specimens to test their electric charge and whether they quivered more vigorously under a weak electric current.  (His fascination with whether they were positively or negatively charged, and with the electrical nature of their oscillations, doubtlessly stemmed from his earlier experiments on the Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety.)  He observed the pseudo-amoebae undergo division, although he does not provide any description or pictures of what this "division" looks like.  Soon, he jumped to the conclusion that, since the pseudo-amoebae moved in such a jerky, mechanical fashion without the inner flow typical of a "real" amoeba, that the pseudo-amoebae must be preliminary stages of life — and thus, he christened them "bions."

I found no mention in The Bion Experiments of Reich ever observing this kind of bion turning into a full-blown org-protozoa or other living cell.  He nevertheless continued to maintain that pseudo-amoebae/bions were a preliminary stage of living cells.

From there, his experiments started getting a little wonky.  He added lecithin and cholesterin to his preparations, because lecithin has a swelling effect and cholesterin has a shrinking effect.  Then he started adding egg whites; he didn't say why, but perhaps it was as a nutrient base.  Then he added meat broth, milk, and egg yolk as deliberate nutrients.  He also began adding coal dust, heated to incandescence as a means of sterilization.  (One webpage calling itself The Z Files - Alchemy, Wilhelm Reich and the Origin of Life, which until late July 2000 resided on the web at http://www.crl.com/~meggert/alchemy.html, claims, "Some of Reich's experiments parallel the alchemists' attempts to create life. His techniques for creating bions are similar to techniques described in alchemical writings, especially those referring to the creation of the homonculus.")  Reich further attempted to sterilize these new mixtures by autoclaving them at 120 degrees Celsius for half an hour (there could have been any number of organisms in the milk and egg yolk prior to sterilization).  But again, no mention is made of how the mixtures are kept sterile when transferred to the microscope slides, or whether the microscope slides were sterilized before receiving the preparations at all, or how microscopic organisms that were floating freely in the air (perhaps anchored to dust grains) were kept out of the preparations while they aged.

As happened repeatedly with Reich's experimental method, his controls on the Bion Experiments were simply too sloppy to ensure that he really was seeing something new and fantastic and not merely seeing a contaminated sample or a simple, mundane side-effect.

The aftermath of Reich's decision that bions are living organisms arising out of non-living matter carried forward into his notions of PA bions and T-Bacilli.  Well after his initial bion research had been completed, Reich set up a dangerous standard for his disciples:

"Today, before any student of orgone biophysics and biogenesis is admitted to advanced biogenetic work at the Orgone Institute, he must attempt to prove that protozoa, cancer cells, plasmatic flakes, bions, T-bacilli, 'cysts,' etc., can be obtained through 'air infection.'  Only when he is convinced by ample air culture experiments that there is no such thing as protozoa in the air will he be able to resist the many influences exerted upon him by his social environment, relinquish his anxieties about 'impurities,' and study nature as it functions.  Only then will he be able to judge intelligently where air infection is actually valid.  In such cases, he will adhere to strict sterilization.  But he will no longer misinterpret every microscopic observation which clearly demonstrates biogenesis as 'only air infection.'  The extent and intricacy of the evasions made possible by neglecting to prove to oneself the possibilities of actual air infection are unbelievable.  This evasiveness must be completely removed, in student and professor of biology alike, if one intends to get through the mire of 'air infection' beliefs."
    — People in Trouble, ch. 9 (p. 264, 1976 ed.) [bolding mine]
This is eerily reminiscent of the "statement of faith" all members of the so-called Institute for Creation Science must sign before they are admitted.  Reich basically said that, if you don't believe that air infection is impossible under the circumstances that he says it's impossible, you won't be allowed to do "advanced" biogenetic work at his institute.  If you have some prior microbiological training, and you see evidence for air infection in a bion preparation, you must be misinterpreting the evidence because of your "belief" in air infection.  This is not the way good science is supposed to be done.  Confirmation of experimental results by adversarial outsiders, and the crucible of valid criticism, are the best means we humans have of determining whether a discovery really is a discovery or whether it's just a mistake.  By weeding out followers who might raise such valid criticisms against his work, Reich short-circuited this process.  This stance of Reich's was, all by itself, sufficient to push his bion research out of the realm of science and into the realm of pseudoscience.

Three discoveries in mainstream biology since the time of Reich are often pointed to by Orgonomists as evidence that the Bion Experiments were seeing something real and not merely contaminated samples or Brownian motion.  These are the discoveries of: deep subterranean bacteria, coacervates, and proteinoid microspheres.

Deep subterranean bacteria

In the mid-1990s, a totally new category of bacteria was discovered that lived deep underneath the surface of the Earth.  Their discovery and properties are detailed in an October 1996 Scientific American article.

Some modern Orgonomists interpret this to mean that the hot dirt deep underground is continuously undergoing vesicular disintegration, and that the vesicles are congregating together into bions which later form into the full-blown bacteria — or that the subterranean bacteria are the vesicles themselves.  There cannot possibly be surface bacteria that burrowed down that deep, it is argued, because no surface bacteria can survive in those conditions.  Furthermore, since some mainstream bioligists are using the subterranean bacteria to argue against conventional theories of how the first life on Earth evolved (which typically involve Earth's ancient oceans), the Orgonomists are the first to leap to the fore with Reich's vesicle-bion theory of abiogenesis.

In fact, many species of bacteria have been discovered over the last century which live in environments previously thought to be too inhospitable.  The extreme thermoacidophiles which thrive only inside the vents of sulphur hotsprings come to mind as one example.  Life is tenacious and adaptive; it can and eventually does evolve the means of exploiting every possible kind of habitat the Earth has to offer.  The subterranean bacteria are the only bacteria that can survive in their environment because they have adapted to survive there.  They could have been traditional ocean-dwelling bacteria that slowly, by burrowing a little deeper every few generations and selecting the "right" mutations along the way, evolved into the deep subterranean bacteria we see today.

And even if life did originate deep underground, this would in no way vindicate Reich's vesicle-bion abiogenesis hypothesis.  The only real link between deep subterranean bacteria and Reich's vesicles/bions is that a few of Reich's bion experiments used dirt soaked in water (or a KCl or organic solution) and heated, and heated dirt is something you can find deep under the ground.


Coacervates are protein/lipid aggregations.  Sometime in the second half of the 20th century, a biochemist named Oparin showed that coacervates can be formed from dehydration reactions among polynucleotides.  Although coacervates are not technically alive because they contain no genetic material, they do have a quasi-lipid bilayer membrane like a cell does, thay can accumulate more organic materials inside themselves as though they are "eating", and they can even divide by budding.  Coacervates and proteinoid microspheres (described below) are the two major contenders for being the progenitors of the first living cells.

Naturally, the similarity between coacervates and the vesicles in the bion experiments is worthy of scrutiny.  They're about the same size and may even behave in the same manner.  However, the process Oparin used to synthesize coacervates required dehydration, whereas the process Reich used to get his vesicles involved letting them soak in water or aqueous solution.  Furthermore, the concentration of polynucleotides present in the materials Reich used (grass, moss, earth, coal, and the various nutrient media he later added) would have been far lower than the straight polynucleotide solutions Oparin required to make his coacervates.

It is doubtful that Reich was seeing coacervates in his experiments.

Proteinoid microspheres

In the 1970s, Sidney W. Fox, the same researcher who had previously shown that amino acids when dried and baked in ultraviolet light turned into short protein-like peptide chains called "proteinoids", took a chunk of proteinoids while it was still hot and soaked it in a warm 1% salt solution.  On cooling, proteinoid-based spheres about 3 microns in diameter streamed forth from the border of the proteinoid chunk in less than two minutes.

These "proteinoid microspheres", like coacervates, have several properties in common with living cells, although they were not technically alive.  They have a shape and size similar to bacteria, they have osmotic properties, they can catalyze some kinds of chemical reactions in their interiors, they grow and divide like coacervates, they have a selectively semipermeable double outer layer similar to a cell membrane, they take in polynucleotides, and they even exhibit primitive metabolic pathways.  They have even been described as capable of responding to stimuli.  One University of Southern Alabama website went so far as to call them "protocells", implying that protenoid microspheres are, in fact, the progenitors of living cells.  (I believe this is premature; I don't think coacervates are quite out of the running yet.)

Unlike coacervates, the process for creating proteinoid microspheres bears a striking resemblance to Reich's process for making vesicles.  Both are supposed to work by soaking a heated, often protein-like or protein-containing, substance in solution; and both work better at higher temperatures.  It is entirely possible that at least some of the vesicles observed by Reich were protenoid microspheres.  But there is one important difference between the two products: protenoid microspheres do not exhibit any tendency to cluster together.  They do not form pseudo-amoebae.  They do not form a large membrane or border around themselves.  They do not act in concert.  They share some behavior with living cells and, one might say, Reich's org-protozoa — but org-protozoa are considerably larger than microspheres.  None of the properties Reich saw in his vesicles are exhibited by proteinoid microspheres at all.  Amoebic cysts, bacterial colonies, and plain old Brownian motion of inanimate particles are still the best candidates for the things Reich saw under his microscope.

Concluding remarks

Reich was not the first M.D. to delude himself into believing that he had observed abiogenesis.  In 1870, British doctor Henry Charlton Bastian conducted experiments wherein he placed superheated saline solutions into test tubes that he claimed were sterile and hermetically sealed.  He saw protozoa in the tubes and was absolutely convinced he was seeing spontaneous generation.  Even when T.H. Huxley pointed out obvious outside contaminants in Bastian's "sterile, hermetically sealed" test tubes, Bastian was not swayed.

Neither was Reich swayed that air infection was even possible, let alone that it could explain all of the microorganisms he saw in his bion preparations.

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