A Skeptical Scrutiny of the Works and Theories of WILHELM REICH

As related to

PA Bions

By Roger M. Wilcox

Last modified 10-August-2005

PA bions were bions that supposedly had curative powers.  Wilhelm Reich later renamed them "orgone energy vesicles."

At the beginning of chapter II in The Cancer Biopathy (q.v.), Reich seemed to change his definition of "bion" from the one given in his earlier book, The Bion Experiments.  Bions in his earlier book were supposed to be aggregations of microscopic vesicles that behaved somewhat, but not completely, like complete living organisms.  However, at the beginning of chapter II in The Cancer Biopathy (p. 15, 1973 trans.), Reich wrote (emphasis in original):

"'Bion' and 'energy vesicle' designate one and the same microscopically visible, functioning formation.  The term "bion" refers to the vesicles into which all matter disintegrates if made to swell.  These vesicles represent transitional forms between non-living and living matter.  The bion is the elemental functioning unit of all living matter."
So it now seems that, for the purposes of his later book, "bions" refers to the vesicles themselves, not to the pseudo-amoebae or other aggregates into which they allegedly form.  I will use Reich's second, individual-vesicle definition of "bion" for the remainder of this critique of PA bions, and for my later critique of T-Bacilli.

I can find no mention by Reich of what the "PA" stands for in "PA bions," but others have suggested that it stands for Packet Ameoba.  In chapter II, section 1 of The Cancer Biopathy, Reich described autoclaving test tubes containing 50% "bouillon" and 50% 0.1n KCl solution in order to sterilize them, then heating coal dust to white-hot incandescence in a gas flame and adding the coal dust to the test tubes while it was still white-hot.  Then the preparation was allowed to sit for a while.  This he called his "coal bion preparation."  As was the case in The Bion Experiments, no description was given in The Cancer Biopathy as to how, or if, the test tubes were sealed off from the environment so as to preserve their sterility while the preparation was left sitting.  Perhaps Reich didn't think the test tubes needed to be sealed off from the surrounding air because the airgerm theory was "obviously" wrong.  However, in one of Reich's control experiments where he set out to show conditions under which bions would not arise (he mixed non-sterile coal powder and plain water), he wrote:

"the overall scene remains unalive.  Months pass without much change.  We are struck by the absense of ordinary air bacteria.  (The test tubes are of course sealed with cotton plugs.)"
Test tube plugs are not mentioned anywhere else, either in The Cancer Biopathy or The Bion Experiments.

Nevertheless, Reich viewed this coal bion preparation under a microscope at magnifications ranging from 300x to 3000x:

"The structure of the individual coal particles is primarily vesicular.  With continued observation, we are able to see small vesicles approximately one micron in diameter disengaging themselves from the margins of the larger particles and moving about freely in the fluid.  When the preparation is successful, movement may be observed at the margins of the particles, expanding, contracting, vibrating, etc.  But even the smaller particles that move about appear to change before our eyes if we observe long enough.  First, they appear "hard," the membrane black and thick.  Gradually, however, the membrane becomes thinner."
    — The Cancer Biopathy, ch. II, sec. 1 (p. 18, 1973 trans.) [emphasis in original]
Reich did not say how many microns across the larger coal particles are.  However, he seemed to be saying that the smaller particles were turning into vesicles by thinning out their outer layers.  This implies that the smaller particles were the same size as the vesicles.  If the vesicles were indeed one micron in diameter, Reich would have to have been looking at them at 2000x-3000x magnification to see details such as the thickness of their outer layers.  This is the magnification level at which true details cannot be seen and the observer is more likely to see optical illusions caused by imperfections in the microscope's optics and tiny undetectable vibrations in the apparatus.  I would not be surprised to learn that Reich was also using a 2000x-3000x magnification where he claimed he "saw" movement at the margins of the particles.  But there may also have been real biological movement there from common airborne bacteria that had infected his sample.

Reich continued:

"On the inside, we see increasingly a blue and blue-green glimmer.  The vesicles become more taut and show increasing internal movement.  Wave-like vibrations may be observed in many vesicles.  The thinner the membrane becomes, the more intense the blue and the more elastic the movement."
Again, Reich claims to be able to see movement inside vesicles that are a mere one micron across.  But this time, too, Reich makes his first mention of these vesicles taking on a bluish tint.  And not just a blue or blue-green color; these vesicles, so he claims, actually glimmer a shade of blue.  He later, not surprisingly, referred to these vesicles as "blue bions."  (As far as I can ascertain, these are the things that Reich means when he talks about "PA bions.")  The question here is what Reich meant by a blue glimmer.  This terminology implies that the vesicles were actually emitting a blue light.  A hint as to what Reich was really seeing comes from a later passage:
"If staphylococcus cultures or rot bacteria (B-proteus, etc.) are allowed to stand for a sufficient length of time, a greenish margin forms around the edge of the culture.  Against the light, this margin is seen to have a blue glimmer which tends to spread."
    — The Cancer Biopathy, ch. II, sec. 3 (p. 31, 1973 trans.) [bolding mine]
Reich was shining a light through the culture when he saw this "glimmer."  He would also have been shining a light upward through his microscope slides when observing his coal bion preparations, as this is the only kind of light that all microscopes (other than low-power dissection microscopes) are equipped with.  This means that the blue "glimmer" was really not an emission of light at all but a refractive effect of the sample's optical properties.  A similar "glowing" effect can be seen on modern films of live sperm cells — they often appear to be glowing a brilliant blue-white, but this is due to the fact that they are shaped like microscopic lenses and are "focusing" the light source onto the camera.  There is also a possibility that, at 2000-3000x magnification, even Reich's apochromatic objective lenses could not totally compensate for chromatic aberration — the tendency for lenses to bend bluer frequencies of light by slightly different amounts than redder frequencies, and thus show a blue or red colored fringe around what is really a black-and-white border.  (Prisms operate entirely on the principle of chromatic aberration.)  If Reich's cultures were really emitting their own blue light, it should have become more visible when Reich turned out the lights.  This fact is crucially important in my critiques of SAPA Bions and Orgone Radiation.

Oddly, Figure 4a in The Cancer Biopathy, chapter II, section 3 (p. 32, 1973 trans.) shows four sketches of "blue bions," each of which has a distinctly different shape.  One even looks like a cell with a nucleus, such as a paramecium or amoeba (or, for that matter, a human cell).  The caption claims that they are from 2 to 10 microns across.  This is far larger than the one-micron-diameter vesicles Reich calls "blue bions" elsewhere in The Cancer Biopathy.  Was Reich confusing his own "vesicle" definition of bions with his earlier "semi-living vesicle aggregation" definition (his "pseudo-amoebae") from The Bion Experiments?  Or was he using a third definition of "bion," meaning anything that resembles a living organism which exists within a bion preparation?

In The Cancer Biopathy, Reich did something new with his bion preparations that he didn't mention doing in The Bion Experiments.  He started using a trick from conventional microbiology called a Gram stain.  A complete description of the principle and technique behind the Gram staining procedure can be found at Loyola University Medical Center.  The gist of it is that a sample is placed on a microscope slide, then allowed to air dry, then "heat fixed" in place by passing it several times through a flame.  Then, four different chemicals — a blue-violet dye, iodine, a very carefully measured amount of alcohol, and a red-colored safranin "counter-stain" — are applied successively to the slide preparation.  Between each application stage, excess chemicals are rinsed off with water.  Those kinds of microorganisms that do not absorb the purple colored iodine-dye complex through their cell walls/membranes remain blue-violet at the end of the procedure, and are called "Gram positive".  Those microorganisms whose cell walls are more permeable to the purple colored iodine-dye complex lose the blue-violet color during the application of alcohol, and turn red upon counterstaining; these are called "Gram negative."  Medical labs keep lists of which organisms are Gram-positive and which are Gram-negative.  Staphylococcus, for example, is Gram-positive.

What's important to note is that the Gram staining procedure does not tell you whether something used to be a living organism before you heat-fixed it.  (I say "used to be" because air-drying and heat-fixing tend to kill any organisms in a sample.)  The Gram staining website I linked to above warns, "Bits of irregularly shaped Gram-positive material or precipitated stain are easy to misconstrue as Gram-positive cocci."  And because the last step in preparing a Gram stain is to flood the smear with a red dye, a lot of inanimate material will probably end up being colored red.  The Gram stain was invented only as a means of distinguishing between different types of living organisms, once you are sure that you actually have living organisms in your sample.  Another staining procedure used by Reich, the Ziehl-Neelsen staining procedure for acid-fast bacilli (using carbol fuchsin, acid-alcohol, and a methylene blue counterstain), can also stain inanimate objects depending on their chemistry.

Reich seems not to have known this:

"Our conclusion is that bions are biologically active forms because, in contrast to the substance from which they originate, they react to biological stain."
    — The Cancer Biopathy, ch. II, sec. 1 (p. 20, 1973 trans.) [emphasis in original]
Likewise, he continued:
"There is another specifically biological characteristic of bions.  Non-living substances viewed under the fluorescent microscope always show only their own characteristic color: coal, black, sodium chloride, yellow, etc.  Coal bions viewed fluoroscopically show not only a black but a blue glimmer, as does a staphylococcus culture or any organic cell tissue.  This is additional proof of the biological character of the coal bions."
Whatever a "black glimmer" is, Reich didn't say.  Nor did he say how an object could have a black glimmer and a blue glimmer at the same time.  Perhaps he meant that the vesicles in his coal bion preparation gave off no fluorescent color from some angles but fluoresced blue from others.  Such a property cannot possibly be limited only to microorganisms.  Like the Gram stain results, blue and black fluorescence is evidence in support of, but not conclusive evidence of, biological material.

Thus far, the claims of Reich regarding PA bions which I've dealt with are not much different from the claims Reich made about ordinary bions.  But the claims about PA bions that I'm about to deal with are far more outlandish.  Reich claimed that PA bions could kill harmful bacilli at a distance, and, when injected into laboratory mice, were able to bolster their immune systems and even stave off cancer.

In chapter II, section 3 of The Cancer Biopathy (p. 34, 1973 trans.), Reich discusses what happens when PA bions and his "T-Bacilli" are mixed together.  He observed them at 400x in a dark field, and at 2000x in ordinary light, and wrote that:

"T-bacilli in the vicinity of the blue bions become agitated, spinning around and around, then remain on one spot, quivering, and finally become immobile.  In time, more and more T-bacilli accumulate around the blue bions: they agglutinate.  The 'dead' bacilli seem to attract and to be lethal to those still living. . . .
    "Subtilis or proteus bacilli, which are five to eight times the size of T-bacilli, are affected in the same way.  In these organisms, the lethalness of the blue bions can be observed much more clearly.  Ultimately, the whole field is covered with dead bacilli."
Reich did not say whether the blue bions in this experiment were the one-micron-wide vesicles he described at the beginning of chapter II, or the 2-10 micron bodies he sketched in Figure 4a.  But subtilis bacilli and proteus bacilli are a different matter entirely.  Unlike "bions," subtilis and proteus bacilli have a definite shape and size and specific properties that distinguish them from all other living organisms.  And unlike "T-Bacilli," subtilis and proteus bacilli have been seen by people other than Reich and his followers.  They are very real types of bacteria, and are certainly large enough to be seen with a high-quality light microscope.  If Reich's blue bions could indeed kill these bacteria at a distance, it would seem to make Reich the discoverer of a whole new mode of microbial interaction.

Indeed, the ability for any cell to kill any other kind of cell at a distance sounds almost like magic.  Amoebae feed by engulfing their prey; likewise, white blood cells destroy invading bacteria by chasing and engulfing them.  Neither of these microscopic killers can attack its victims from afar.  Are Reich's bions, which as you may recall he also sometimes called "energy vesicles", emitting some kind of strange, new form of energy that renders "bad" bacteria immobile?

Actually, many organisms are known to have a harmful effect on bacteria they don't directly touch.  Among them are the organisms that produce antibiotics.  Penicillin, for example, is a substance secreted by members of the fungus genus Penicillium (the greyish-green mold that grows on bread).  Penicillin prevents bacteria from forming new cell walls; when a bacterium exposed to penicillin attempts to divide, it merely elongates and bursts.  Penicillium fungi apparently produce penicillin as a defense mechanism against bacteria that would otherwise harm them.  Eukaryotic cells which lack bacterial cell walls, such as the normal cells of a fungus (or the human body), are not affected; neither are "resistant" bacteria that have evolved the ability to produce the penicillin-destroying enzyme penicillinase.  No mysterious energy emissions are required to explain how penicillin works.  Granted, penicillin as an anti-biotic drug was still only in the experimental stages when Reich was doing his bion experiments, but if Reich had not "deliberately avoided making a new study of specialized biological literature" (The Bion Experiments, ch. 2, p. 26), maybe he would have come across mentions of how Penicillium could produce this anti-bacterial agent and kill bacteria at a distance.

Likewise, Staphylococcus aureus secretes an enterotoxin and the toxin leukocidin, so called because it kills leukocytes (white blood cells).  Leukocidin and/or the S. aureus enterotoxin are probably capable of harming bacteria as well.  This is significant, because as I mentioned in my critique of bions, Kreyberg declared that the "bions" in Reich's sample were nothing more than Staphylococci that had infected the preparation.  If this is true, and the "PA bions" Reich observed were also Staphylococci, then it would explain why PA bions could neutralize bacilli at a distance.

But then, what of Reich's other claim about PA bions — that PA bions injected into mice can improve their health?

Certainly, injecting Staphylococcus aureus into mice would not improve their health.  Staph infections in humans cause cramps and severe vomiting and, thanks to their leukocidin secretions, pus, acne, boils, and a depressed immune system.  Staph infections in mice would likewise make them ill.  But we don't know if Reich injected the same PA bion preparations into his mice as the coal bion preparation sample he put on agar and gave to Kreyberg to look at, which Kreyberg said were Staphylococci.  It's very possible that the PA bions Reich injected into the mice were not Staphylococci but some other, non-disease-causing organism.

It is also worth noting that some anti-biotics are derived not from fungi, but from bacteria.  Bacitracin, for example, is derived from the so-called "Tracy I" strain of Bacillus subtilis isolated in 1943, and is active against Gram-positive bacteria.  What if some of the subtilis bacilli Reich was using to test the anti-bacilli power of his PA bions happened to be members of the strain that produced bacitracin?  And what if some of this bacitracin had gotten into one of his PA bion preparations, which he later injected into his mice?  This would explain their alleged increased resistance to disease.  It would also go part way to explaining their alleged increased resistance to cancer; at the time Reich did these experiments, the role of the immune system in cancer prevention was not yet appreciated by the medical community.

These are just two possible alternative explanations for why Reich's PA bion preparations might have seemed to bolster the health of the mice injected with them.  There may be many others.  It is impossible to tell, since Reich's descriptions of which PA bion preparations he used, and what sterilization methods he applied to them, were not documented.

In fact, it is even impossible to tell whether the mice actually had their health improved at all.  Reich commenced injection experiments on mice in January 1937, and tabulated the results in chapter II, section 3 of The Cancer Biopathy (p. 34, 1973 trans.).  He showed the results for mice injected with "T-Bacilli", mice injected with PA bions, mice injected with T-bacilli followed by PA bions, and mice injected with PA bions followed by T-bacilli.  He did not show any results for mice that were not injected with anything, or for mice that were injected with a neutral placebo substance.  In other words, his experiment lacked a control group.  Yes, all the mice injected with PA bions were alive and healthy after 15 months.  But is that more than what one would expect for mice not injected with anything?  And how were the mice cared for in the interim?  Were all groups given equal amounts of food and water?  Were they caged in the same room, or caged in different rooms with different environments (and perhaps different levels of airborne bacteria)?  Reich didn't say.

Ultimately, Reich's lack of experimental controls, combined with his preconceived insistence that his tension-charge formula governs all life at all levels, once again reared its ugly head.  The alleged life-positive properties of PA bions are as unsupported by Reich's evidence as the notion that bions were derived entirely from non-living matter yet were partially alive themselves.

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