A Skeptical Scrutiny of the Works and Theories of WILHELM REICH

As related to

The Cancer Biopathy

By Roger M. Wilcox

Last modified 3-September-2003

"Reich coined the term 'cancer biopathy' to convey the underlying process of cancer.  And he used this term 'biopathy' to cover a series of illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, and schizophrenia.  He felt that the basic cause of such degenerative diseases was a chronic malfunction of the organism's biological energy.  These diseases were to be distinguished from infectious or bacterially caused illnesses, for the development of biopathies was largely dependent upon the patient's emotional make-up."
    — Fury on Earth by Myron Sharaf, ch. 22, p. 298
Reich, apparently, did not believe in carcinogens or random mutations.  He felt that all cases of cancer were actually biopathies, caused by the patient's neurotic character and its associated, underlying orgone energy dysfuntion.  Presumably, then, cancer should be curable if the patient's character armor could be removed.

Reich attempted to support this hypothesis by observing the character of some cancer patients.  He discovered that, by and large, cancer patients showed mild emotions and a sense of resignation, which he associated with a depletion of energy from the body, and thus he concluded that it was this energy depletion which caused the cancer.  There is a problem with this observation, though: Reich was observing people who knew they had cancer.  At the time this research was being done (late 1930s to early 1940s), cancer was almost totally incurable, and being diagnosed with cancer was little more than a death sentence.  It is not at all surprising that people who knew they had cancer, and knew they would probably die pretty soon, would show emotional resignation.  The link Reich observed between cancer and a resigned personality probably indicates that the former caused the latter, not the other way around.

Biopathic shrinking

Central to Reich's hypothesis that cancer and other ailments were actually biopathies was his notion that a person with a biopathic character structure was in a chronic state of contraction.  The chronic blockage of orgone energy within the character's body caused his or her orgone energy system to shrink, which pulled the character's musculature down along with it, thereby giving rise to muscular armoring.  It was this shrinking, in Reich's view, which gave rise to biopathic illnesses.

Reich didn't merely believe that it was the musculature that could expand or contract; he believed that the autonomic nervous system — the nerves themselves — actually, physically, expanded and contracted too, without any help from the musculature.  As evidence for this, he described an experiment with a microscopic, transparent mealworm.  He placed the worm under one of his high-quality microscopes and focused in on its ganglion and its nerve fibers:

"The movements of the nerves are serpentine, slowly undulating, and occasionally jerky.  They consistently precede the corresponding movements of the total organism by a fraction of a second: first the nerve and its rami contract, followed by the contraction of the musculature.  Expansion proceeds in the same fashion."
    — The Cancer Biopathy, ch. V, sec. 2 (pp. 154-155, 1973 trans.)
This is quite remarkable, considering that to this day no peer-reviewed research has ever found any evidence that nerve fibers move on their own in the course of their normal operation.  It would qualify as an amazing discovery in its own right, if it were what Reich was actually seeing.

Unfortunately for Reich, what he was seeing was not the nerve fibers moving on their own.  He was almost certainly seeing the muscles in the immediate vicinity of the nerves contract and pull the nerves along with them — followed, a fraction of a second later, by muscular contractions farther away from the nerve fibers which caused the whole worm to bend.  When the nerves stopped firing, the muscles right next to the visible nerve fibers relaxed first, followed by the relaxation of muscles farther away which caused the whole worm to return to its original shape.

— Portion of article yet to be written. —

Amoeboid cancer cells

In chapter VI, section 1 of The Cancer Biopathy (p. 215, 1973 trans.), Reich described looking at the blood, excretia, and tissues of a lung cancer patient under a microscope.  (He did not say if he looked at the blood of more than one known cancer patient as a basis for comparison.)  The things he claimed to see at a magification of 2000x were reminiscent of the observations he'd made in his bion experiments.  But as with his bion observations, it is important to remember that 2000x is about twice the maximum useful magnification of even the best light-microscopes.  Any "structures" only revealed at such a high magnification are little more than imperfections in the microscope's optics.

Reich claimed to see cells and structures in the blood, tissues, and excretia of his cancer patient which are never found in the tissues and excretia of healthy humans.  However, since Reich was expecting to see unusual things in the samples he took from a cancer patient, it is questionable just how hard he tried to look for those same unusual things in samples taken from healthy people.  Some of the forms Reich claimed to see in the lung-cancer-patient samples were described as caudate, that is, having a tail or tail-like appendage, like a tadpole or a sperm cell.  Reich wrote:

"The presence of caudate, rapidly-moving, pulsating amoebae in lung sputum is an unexpected finding.  How do amoeba-like formations get into the lung?  It cannot be through 'air infection,' for there are no amoebae in the air.  Therefore they must have developed in the lung itself."
    — The Cancer Biopathy, ch. VI, sec. 1 (pp. 215-216, 1973 trans.) [emphasis in original]
His statement that there are no amoebae in the air is an assumption Reich made in his bion experiments as well.  Reich had no grounds for making such an assertion; amoebic cysts are over 10 microns across, large enough to be seen under a light-microscope at "normal" magnifications, and were known to exist in Reich's time.  There is every reason to suspect that the amoebae Reich saw in the cancer patient's sputum were normal amoebae the patient had inhaled or ingested.  This is particularly likely if the patient had lung cancer, as Reich has told us (s)he did, because lung tumors are usually accompanied by a weakening of the lung cilia which normally keep the lungs clean of airborne particles (including airborne particles that amoebic cysts might be clinging to).

On the other hand, tails are something amoebae do not normally possess.  Reich could have been seeing a couple of bacillus-shaped bacteria following the amoebae around, or amoebae that happened to be unusually elongated on one end.  (Amoebae are extremely motile, and can contort themselves into just about any shape imaginable.)  But more likely, the "tail" was little more than the slightly-skinnier half of an amoeba's elongated body.  Elsewhere in the text Reich describes these amoeboid cancer cells as being "club-like" in appearance, and the photographs that appear in the back of the book do resemble simple clubs rather than cells with tails.

It is not certain whether or not Reich's "amoeboid cancer cells" were the same entities that mainstream cancer researchers refer to as "cancer cells" (i.e., the cells that make up a cancer tumor).  Real cancer cells do look somewhat amoeba-like, in that they have highly variable geometries and can extend pseudopods like amoebae do, as shown in this live cancer cell webcam.  (This webcam does not list the magnification used, but cancer cells tend to be about 50 microns across.)  As early as 1850, Gottlieb Gluge's Atlas der Pathologischen Anatomie said that cancer cells "frequently exhibit caudate prolongations."  However, cancer cells come in a wide variety of shapes, and are not all uniformly club-shaped like Reich's "amoeboid cancer cells"; and while individual cancer cells can break free from their tumor and travel through the bloodstream (as a stage in the metastasis process), and have even been observed in the sputum of lung cancer patients (just like Reich's "amoeboid cancer cells") as early as 1955, they do not swim around under their own power like amoebae do.

Reich, convinced as he was that the amoebae had developed in the lungs on their own, offered the following hypothesis:

"Is it possible that the amoebae and the other formations in the lung sputum have developed from disintegrating lung tissue in precisely the same way that amoebae in moss infusions develop from disintegrating moss tissue?"
    — The Cancer Biopathy, ch. VI, sec. 1 (pp. 216, 1973 trans.) [emphasis in original]
Here, Reich was being somewhat dishonest.  He first presented his findings of amoeboid "cancer cells" in the tissues of a cancer patient, then presented his hypothesis that these cells had developed from the bionous disintegration of the patient's tissue.  On 15-June-1936, before Reich had done his first experiments with the tissues of cancer patients or seen his first amoeboid cancer cell, he wrote in his journal:
"Cancer brings together the [bion] vesicles, organizes them, but disrupts their motion.  Cf. the general, combining, paralyzing function of cancer."
    — from Beyond Psychology, page 66 [emphasis in original]
In other words, Reich believed that there would be bion-like cells in the tissues of cancer patients before he even started looking for them!  This alone should give one pause when assessing the validity of his "discovery."

— Remainder of article yet to be written. —

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