A Skeptical Scrutiny of the Works and Theories of WILHELM REICH

As related to

The Reich Blood Test(s)

By Roger M. Wilcox

Last modified 23-July-2005

Reich listed four different tests he performed on the blood of cancer patients and supposed cancer patients, both to determine whether they had (or were likely to get) cancer at the outset and to check the alleged effectiveness of his anti-cancer treatments.  All four of these tests stemmed from his theory that cancer was a biopathy.

These blood tests appear in Reich's book The Cancer Biopathy in chapter V, section 4 (pp. 170-171, 1973 trans.), under the heading of "orgone-biophysical blood tests."  Reich's central tenet in each of these blood tests was that the orgone energy charge of red blood cells (erythrocytes), and of the blood plasma they were contained in, determined their overall state of health — and looking at the blood under a microscope supposedly revealed clues about its orgone energy charge.  Reich wrote:

"Orgone energy charges the erythrocytes biologically.  Each individual erythrocyte is an independent, self-contained orgonotic energy vesicle.  It is subject to the same biological function of tension and charge and pulsation as the total organism and every one of its autonomous organs.  The expansion and contraction of erythrocytes can be observed easily at a magnification of about 3000x.  The erythrocytes shrink with the admixture of adrenalin, whereas potassium chloride makes them swell.  They are, therefore, subject to the antithesis of the pleasure-anxiety function."
    — The Cancer Biopathy, ch. V, sec. 4 (p. 170, 1973 trans.) [emphasis in original]
As I've noted in my critique of Reich's microscopy technique, there are serious problems with using a light microscope at magnifications higher than 1400x.  Reich's comment about adrenalin and potassium chloride comes from his association of sodium with the sympathetic nervous system, which causes one to "recoil" or "shrink away" from the outside world, and his association of potassium with the parasympathetic nervous system, which causes one to "expand" toward the outside world.  Reich evidently felt that individual cells were a model in miniature of the multicellular organisms of which they were a part, right down to their reactions to specific chemicals.

Here are the four specific tests Reich performed on a sample of a patient's blood:

1. Culture test

"A blood sample is tested for bacterial growth in bouillon or in a mixture of 50% bouillon plus 50% KCl (0.1n).  In cases of advanced cancer, the blood consistently shows a growth of T-bacilli."
    — The Cancer Biopathy, ch. V, sec. 4 (p. 170, 1973 trans.) [emphasis in original]
The main problem with this test is how small Reich's T-Bacilli are supposed to be.  They are around a quarter of a micron long, or less.  Reich himself said that they could only be seen at all at magnifications of 2000x or greater, and typically required magnifications of 4000x to 5000x to be able to tell that they were indeed T-Bacilli.  The effective magnification limit of even the best light microscope is around 1400x.

Thus, with any visual test for T-Bacilli, there is a clear danger of "seeing" something that isn't there at all.  Perhaps Reich expected to see T-Bacilli in the blood of advanced cancer patients, and so he "found" them.

It should be noted that Reich wasn't the first person who thought he saw microscopic organisms in the blood which indicated disease.  In 1916, Günther Enderlein began observing the blood of patients suffering from a variety of illnesses, and reported seeing ball-like structures and string-like structures which resembled bacteria.  Since modern techniques for analyzing proteins were unavailable at the time, he had no way of knowing that they were just nonliving clumps of globin and albumin, so he assumed they were bacteria, or bacterial progenitors.  There is a possibility that Reich saw the same structures and assumed they were T-Bacilli, but Reich's own description of how tiny T-Bacilli were when compared to normal bacteria casts doubt on this assumption.

2. Biological resistance test

"A few drops of blood are autoclaved for half an hour in bouillon and KCl at a steam pressure of 15 lbs. per sq. in.  Healthy blood withstands the process of autoclavation better than the biologically weakened blood of cancer patients.  Biologically healthy blood corpuscles disintegrate into large blue bion vesicles.  Carcinomatously devitalized blood disintegrates into T-bodies.  The T-body content increases and that of the blue bions decrease, in proportion to the degree of devitalization."
    — The Cancer Biopathy, ch. V, sec. 4 (p. 170, 1973 trans.)
Once again, a visual inspection for T-Bacilli is part of this test.  As with test 1, the result of such a T-Bacillus search would more likely reveal the bias of the observer (i.e. was the person doing the test expecting to find T-Bacilli or not), than it would reveal any actual data about the blood sample.

Or would it?  Recall that one of the initial experiments Reich did when he first discovered T-Bacilli was to Gram stain his sample.  The T-Bacilli showed up as red (Gram-negative) particles.  And according to a different passage in an earlier chapter in The Cancer Biopathy, a Gram stain may in fact be part of the biological resistance test:

"We autoclave a few drops of blood from each person in bouillon and potassium chloride for thirty minutes at a temperature of 120°C. with steam pressure 15 lbs. per sq. in.  Microscopic examination may now yield two very different results.  The autoclaved blood of one person has disintegrated into large blue bion vesicles.  The blood of the other person yields no blue vesicles, only T-bacilli.  Gram stain confirms this difference: one blood sample produces blue, Gram-positive vesicles [ . . . ], the other, red, Gram-negative T-bacilli"
    — The Cancer Biopathy, ch. II, sec. 4 (p. 38, 1973 trans.)
Of course, the Gram-negative particles in the autoclaved blood sample may not be "T-bacilli," and are not necessarily anything other than inanimate particles.  But the fact that the Gram stains from these two subjects were different, in and of itself, would seem to imply that Reich was on to something.  Could it be that the blood of people with cancer has something in it that the blood of people without cancer lacks, or vice versa?  Maybe the Gram-negative particles were malignant cancer cells that had broken off from the main tumor.  Maybe they were the shrivelled-up remains of leukocites (white blood cells.)  Tests for things like leukocite count are commonly done for people suspected of having cancer today.  Had Reich stumbled upon a real, genuine, useful tool for non-invasively diagnosing cancer, years before the rest of the medical community did?

Or was Reich guilty of "selective perception," noticing only the Gram-negative particles in the blood of someone he knew had cancer, and noticing only the Gram-positive "vesicles" in the blood of someone he knew did not have cancer, while ignoring any contradictory evidence in his samples?  We may never know for certain.

And what about the visual inspection for blue bions?  Blue bions, which Reich also called PA bions, are supposed to be about a micron across, and this is large enough that they ought to be visible in a light microscope at 1000x or less, which is well within a good microscope's effective magnification limit.  Unlike in the case of supposed T-bacilli, seeing something alleged to be a PA bion probably means there really is something there.

A modern orgonomy webpage provides a clue.  Jim DeMeo, head of the Orgone Biophysical Research Lab, and Richard Blasband, who was president of the American College of Orgonomy until he got kicked out for embracing Eastern mysticism and now heads the Center for Functional Research, scheduled a seminar in August 2000 titled Bions and the Reich Blood Test.  There was a webpage about it at http://www.orgonelab.org/d_semin1.htm, but that page has since been taken down, and the seminar was later retitled Bions, Biogenesis and the Reich Blood Test.  About 3/4 of the way down the latter seminar's webpage are pictures of human blood cells in both saline solution and normal blood plasma.  Each picture contains one or two lumpy-looking cells, smaller than the round erythrocytes next to them, which DeMeo and Blasband have labelled "PA-reactions" and "PA-cells."  Thus, we have actual pictures of what Reich presumably thought were PA bions in human blood.  Both of these sets of "PA" cells appear to be nothing more than lumpy, shrunken red blood cells.  In fact, the two "PA-cells" in the picture on the right even have the same red color as the surrounding red blood cells.  We don't know for sure that what DeMeo and Blasband call PA cells are the same things that Reich called PA cells, but given how the torch of orgonomy has been passed down from the time of Reich to the time of Richard Blasband through an unbroken chain of orgonomists, it's reasonable to assume that Reich's criteria for PA-ness were shown to each succeeding generation intact.

Reich tried to support his alleged link between the erythrocytes' resistance to the "T-reaction", and their orgonotic charge, further:

"Orgone treatment charges the erythrocytes.  The effect is demonstrated by the transformation of the T-reaction into a B-reaction; i.e., the blood becomes more resistant to high temperatures."
    — The Cancer Biopathy, ch. V, sec. 4 (pp. 170-171, 1973 trans.)
This implies that Reich observed both a lower incidence of T-Bacilli and a higher incidence of PA bions in autoclaved blood that had been placed in an orgone accumulator for a while than in autoclaved blood that had not been placed in an orgone accumulator.  We can comfortably ignore his assertion that there were fewer T-Bacilli in the orgone-treated blood, due to the submicroscopic size T-Bacilli are alleged to have.  We cannot, however, so easily ignore Reich's claim that there were more PA bions in the orgone-treated blood.  Even if the PA bions Reich saw were nothing more than shrunken erythrocytes, it would still be significant if there were more of them in autoclaved orgone-treated blood than there were in autoclaved non-orgone-treated blood.

However, we can't be sure of the methodology Reich used to actually count the PA bions.  He didn't describe it.  He merely asserted that there were more of them in the orgone-treated blood.  He could have looked around haphazardly at various areas of his microscope slide, deliberately hunting for concentrations of PA bions in the orgone-treated specimens and deliberately looking for places where PA bions were rare or absent in the non-orgone-treated specimens.  Reich expected orgone treatment to increase the B-reaction and decrease the T-reaction, and he almost certainly introduced this bias into his observations.

Another possibility, considering we don't know how long Reich left his orgone-treated blood specimens in the accumulator, is that the orgone-treated blood could have been left out for a considerable length of time, giving the erythrocytes that much more of a chance to shrink into PA-bion-looking lumps.

3. Disintegration in physiological salt solution

"A small drop of blood is placed on a hanging drop slide in 0.9% sodium chloride solution.  The blood corpuscles disintegrate slowly or quickly according to their biological resistance.  The more rapid their disintegration, the shrinking of their membrane, and the formation of bion vesicles inside the cells, the lower their biological resistance.  Erythrocytes that are biologically vigorous retain their shape for twenty minutes and longer.  Disintegration within one to three minutes indicates extreme biological weakness.  In cases of severe anemia, the erythrocytes display the typical T-spikes, i.e., shrunken membranes."
    — The Cancer Biopathy, ch. V, sec. 4 (p. 171, 1973 trans.)
Actually, red blood cells — and all cells without cell walls, for that matter — will shrink if immersed in a saline solution.  How rapidly and how severely they shrink is mostly a matter of how high the salinity is in the solution they're immersed in.  Reich did not say how much sodium chloride there was on the slide relative to the amount of blood.  Nor did he say whether he observed erythrocytes at the fringes of the drop of blood (where they would be most closely in contact with the saline solution) or at the center of the blood drop (where it would take some time for the saline solution to work its way in that far).

In fact, Reich may have been looking at both cells in the shielded interior of the drop of blood and cells at its exposed periphery.  He could count the shrunken cells and ignore the still-healthy cells if he were looking at the blood of a patient suspected of being "weakened," and count the still-healthy cells and ignore the shrunken cells if he were looking at the blood of a patient he thought was "healthy" and "vigorous."  Reich was not known for doing blind, randomized trials to verify his hypotheses.

This rate-of-disintegration test is unique in that the FDA attempted to replicate Reich's results in the early 1950s.  They took 15 employees of the Nassau Hospital in Mineola, New York, who were believed to be healthy, and 15 patients known to be suffering from malignant cancer of one form or another.  Blood was drawn at least a few times from each subject and the rate of erythrocyte disintegration was observed each time.  Unfortunately, the controls were sloppy (e.g. sometimes the blood preparations were left uncovered from one observation to the next), and to complicate matters, the rate of erythrocyte disintegration of blood from the same subject varied from day to day.  Ultimately, the FDA performed no statistical analysis of the results, and the experiment was inconclusive.  No conclusive, randomized, blind trial of the rate-of-disintegration test has yet been performed.

4. Blue orgone margin

"Biologically vigorous erythrocytes reveal a broad, intensely blue or blue-green margin when viewed at 300-600x, using apochromatic lenses.  Devitalized erythrocytes, tending toward rapid disintegration, have an extremely narrow margin, with weak blue coloration."
    — The Cancer Biopathy, ch. V, sec. 4 (p. 171, 1973 trans.)
Although Reich did mention elsewhere that he saw a "blue glimmer" in red blood cells magnified at 3000x, he did not say that he noticed anything particular about the margin of red blood cells at magnifications above 600x.  Nor did he say that he could see this while staring through the microscope in the dark.  Nor did he describe the kind of light he used to illuminate his specimens.  And although he described his microscope as having "apochromatic lenses," he really only knew this was the case for the microscope's objective lenses; he did not know, or at the very least did not mention, what kinds of lenses were used for the eyepieces or the various internal lenses of his microscopes.

And more importantly, red blood cells, like all cells, are not opaque or flat.  They are thicker in the middle than they are around the edges, and they transmit light.  In essence, when light shines through them, they behave like rather poorly-built lenses.  Lenses of all types are notorious for "end effects" or "fringe bending" of light in odd ways; in fact, lenses have to be specially designed if you want to avoid fringe effects.  It would not be at all surprising that vaguely-lens-shaped red blood cells would bend blue light at their margins more severely than they would bend red light, and would thus appear to have a blue fringe if inspected very closely.

Despite these alternate explanations, Reich believed that the blue color he saw on the boundaries of erythrocytes was not a "lensing" effect of the cell or "chromatic aberration" in his microscope's optics, but a real honest-to-goodness blue glow.  Elsewhere in The Cancer Biopathy, in chapter II, section 4 (p. 41, 1973 trans.), Reich wrote:

"It is a generally known fact, first discovered by Gurwitsch, that animal blood radiates."
Actually, this "fact" was not so well-established as Reich implied.  In 1922, Russian histologist Alexander G. Gurwitsch noticed that onion stalks began mitosis (cell division) when approached by the roots of another onion.  He separated onion plants with quartz, and noticed that the onion stalks still began mitosis when another onion root grew close to them, even if the other onion root was on the other side of the quartz.  Since quartz is transparent to ultraviolet light, Gurwitsch concluded that the onion roots must be emitting ultraviolet light when their cells underwent mitosis, and that this ultraviolet was triggering mitosis in the other onion plant.  He called these emissions "mitogenetic rays."

The 1920s saw sporadic success with attempts to detect mitogenetic rays.  Some experiments detected them, and others did not.  If cells did emit any kind of radiation during mitosis, it was so weak as to require extremely sensitive equipment to detect at all.  Mainstream geneticists and biologists ultimately dismissed the existence of mitogenetic rays in the 1940s, only to have the topic resurrected half a century later when better low-level UV detectors became affordable.

The upshot of Gurwitsch's work, as it relates to Reich's claims about cellular radiation, is that (A) emissions are only detected when a cell undergoes mitosis; (B) these emissions lie within the ultraviolet spectrum, which is invisible to the human eye; and (C) the emission levels are extremely small, usually measured in individual photon counts per minute.  This could hardly account for a bright blue halo visible under a microscope with the lights on, or a field of radiation that kills any bacilli that get close to a cell (as Reich alleged that PA bions, SAPA bions, and "orgone-charged" blood cells emit).  Chromatic aberrations, or just plain wishful thinking coupled with an emperor's-new-clothes mentality, could account for Reich's thinking he saw a strong blue halo around some red blood cells and a weaker one around others.

There is a fifth test Reich sometimes performed on blood samples, wherein he searched for the "amoeboid cancer cells" he claimed were present in biopathic cancer patients' blood.  To my knowledge, this test has not become part of the Reich blood tests performed by the American College of Orgonomy et al., and will not be discussed in this critique.

Ultimately, the four Reich blood tests reveal far more about the expectations of the experimenter than about the health of the patient.  If the person performing the tests believes the blood to have come from an "orgonotically strong" patient, (s)he will look for, and find, a lack of T-Bacilli in the culture test, a lack of T-Bacilli and the presence of PA bions in the biological resistance test, few erythrocytes with shrunken membranes in the salt solution test, and a bright blue margin around the erythrocytes in general.  If the person performing the tests believes the blood to have come from an "orgonotically weak" or cancer-infected patient, (s)he will look for, and find, exactly the opposite.  It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  This "fulfillment" of the experimenter's expectations will reinforce the experimenter's convictions that (s)he has made an accurate diagnosis of the patient's orgonotic state, which will reinforce his/her convictions about the veracity of orgone energy and the predictive power of the Reich blood tests.

Only a randomized blind trial of the Reich blood tests, which has never been performed, stands a chance of showing whether the Reich blood tests have any predictive power at all — or, for that matter, of breaking the vicious cycle of experimenter bias in the eyes of the Reich blood test's practitioners.

Send comments regarding this Web page to: Roger M. Wilcox.
Main Wilhelm Reich index page | Roger M. Wilcox's home page