Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Lewisburg, Union County
Psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich died in the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary while serving a sentence for fraud related to "therapeutic" products.
After his birth to a farmer in what was a part of Austria, Wilhelm Reich spent much his youth isolated from other children. He was educated for the most part in the home but attended medical school in Vienna after his tour as a Lieutenant in the Army during World War I. While in medical school, Reich became a part of the inner circle of Freud and was a major part of Freud's research on the libido until he was exiled from Austria by Hitler and published several works, including The Function of Orgasm. Reich came to the United States to further his research into the energy that he called "orgone" which he thought fueled the libido and was responsible for psychological disorders if not released. In the 1950's the Food and Drug Administration put out an injunction on Reich's sale of orgone collectors which led to his imprisonment in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania where he died at the age of sixty.
Wilhelm Reich was born March 24, 1897 to what he called in his autobiography Passion of Youth "not unprosperous parents." His father was an Austrian farmer of Jewish decent in the Bukovina which later became the Ukraine. Reich and his brother, Robert, began their primary education at home under the tutelage of both parents. Reich found his father to be cruel and demanding and eventually asked to be schooled by his mother alone. The request was granted, and Reich's education flourished. When he was ten years old, his parents hired three successive tutors to prepare Reich for the Gymnasium (German equivalence to high school) entrance exams. These tutors according to Reich brought about the catastrophe of his youth. Reich's mother, Cecillie, began an affair with the second tutor. Many of their sexual encounters were witnessed and guarded by young Wilhelm. After one year of employment, the tutor was refused another year at the urging of the mother. She subsequently attempted an affair with the third tutor. Reich's father discovered the affairs and forced the children to tell what they knew. Cecillie attempted suicide for the first time. After her recovery, she endured great emotional and physical pain at the hands of Leon, the father, as recorded in Passion of Youth. Cecillie eventually attempted suicide a second time and died from the poisons when Reich was thirteen years old. Four years later, during his first year at the Gymnasium, Reich's father died of tuberculosis.
After the death of his parents, Wilhelm Reich was left to run the family farm at the onset of World War I. During the war, Russian soldiers took over the Reich farm. One of the sergeants befriended Reich and allowed him to escape when he and other Austrians were taken hostage. After that event, Reich joined the Austrian Army and reached the rank of Lieutenant.
Upon completion of duty, Reich attended the Medical University of Vienna and completed a six year course in four years. He graduated in 1922 as an M.D. During this time, Reich became the only undergraduate to obtain membership in the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society and began working under Dr. Sigmund Freud in psychoanalysis. His ideas of the importance of sexuality which were rooted in a curiosity that began at age four, led him to Freud and Freud's work on the idea of "libido." At the time, Freud and his coworkers believed that neuroses were caused by a conflict between natural sexual instincts and social denial and the frustration caused by the conflict. They also discovered the existence of a biological sexual energy that can be found in the body like an electric charge. Reich began his own private practice in 1922 and then held many directorial positions in some of Freud's clinics. He became a faculty member of the Psychoanalytic Institute of Vienna where he did extensive research on sexual health. He created several clinics dedicated to sexual awareness and liberation.
According to one Reich biographer at the Wilhelm Reich Museum, 1925 saw a split between Reich and Freud. Freud came to the conclusion that his idea of a sexual energy was only speculation; however, Reich continued research which convinced him that it was a real and measurable energy. In 1925, Reich published his first work called Der triebhafte Charakter [The Libidinal Character] which was followed in 1927 by The Function of Orgasms. These two books combined were a culmination of the research that Reich had done to this point. The books outlined his findings that sexual gratification alleviates neuroses and that orgasms maintain an energy balance by discharging excess biological energy built up in the body naturally. He believed that if the energy was not released, it became stagnant and manifested itself as a neurosis in his patients. Reich also found that the energy causes a rigidity of muscles and character which he called muscular or character armor. According to Reich, the only way to eliminate this armor was to reach orgasitc potency which is the "total discharge of sexual energy in the genital embrace."
Reich founded six clinics in Vienna where people could come to be educated on the essential role of sexuality in their lives. In a posthumous book Reich Speaks of Freud, Reich says that the only way to reach a solution to the "widespread sexual misery" was prevention and not treatment. Because of this idea, his clinics promoted sex education, birth control, divorce rights, and better housing. His outspoken ideas on sexuality and his open opposition to the Nazis led to Reich's public denunciation and his forced flight from Austria in 1933 when Hitler came to power.
Reich moved to Norway where he continued his research. He discovered a charge of energy that moves toward the periphery of the body during experiences of pleasure and toward the core during those of displeasure. The energy was too slow to be electrical. Reich looked for evidence of this same energy in other biological life. His experiments with protozoa, Reich discovered what he called "bions" which were pulsating vesicles. He also discovered that the radiation of energy from bions could kill bacteria and cancer cells. He called the energy "orgone." During this time, Reich published The Bions and Bion Experiments on the Cancer Problem. Both works outlined his ideas about orgone and launched a Norwegian media attack on his work. Reich left for America.
Reich began teaching at the New School in New York City where he continued his cancer research with bions. In 1940, Reich discovered that by alternating layers of metallic and non-metallic materials in a box that one could observe the energy of bions. He then discovered that the energy could be observed even without a bion being present. Reich determined that the energy must be present in all things and called the boxes Orgone Accumulators.
Before the discovery of the accumulators, Reich was using bion injections to treat mice with cancer. The accumulator allowed Reich to treat cancer mice without injections. The promising results of these experiments led Reich to begin testing the use of orgone radiation on human cancer patients. In 1941 he began his first human treatments with patients who were determined to be otherwise terminal. They all saw marked improvements in health including, pain relief, weight gain, and even elimination of tumors. Reich moved his research to a farm in Rangeley, Maine in 1942. He named the farm Orgonon and built a student research laboratory which attracted many people. In 1947 Reich and his students discovered a motor force of orgone which he used to create a "cloudbuster." According to the Reich Museum, this cloudbuster actually created documented rain storms.
In that year, Reich also began documenting that he felt like his work was in danger.An article was written about him by Mildred Brady, a freelance writer, that said he was a danger to society. The article launched an investigation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) into Reich's work. According to several sources, the investigations were aimed at the fact that he was using human subjects, and they attempted to prove the accumulators were being used fraudulently as sexual and medical devices. No dissatisfied users were ever found.
In response to the efforts of the FDA, Reich published Listen, Little Man in 1948. According to a review in the New York Times, this book "tells us something that we all can afford to hear and it tells it with an energy that might have been hampered by scientific restraint. It is as if a psychiatrist fed up with our evasions, had decided to let us have it." His book tells people to stop looking at the world in general and focus on themselves. He said that the responsibility for the conditions of the world rests on the individual and that if something is wrong it is because of ones own destructiveness.
In 1954 an injunction was filed against Reich after a legal complaint was made with no recognized response from Reich. The injunction said that accumulators were to be destroyed along with the materials used to produce them. It also banned many of Reich's books until all mention of orgone was removed. Later that year, Reich and one of his students were arrested after the student took accumulators from Maine to New York City which violated the injunction. Both men were found guilty and sentenced to prison; Reich for two years and Silvert for one year. According to a March 12, 1957 New York Times article, Reich was sent the Danbury Federal Penitentiary after being denied all appeals. The government felt that the accumulators were "worthless." This move to a federal penitentiary came after one year of appeals, a $10,000 fine, and the burning of thousands of copies of Reich's works which represented one of the largest acts of censorship in United States' history according to the Reich Museum. On March 22, 1957 Reich was moved to the Federal Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania where he died on November 3, 1957. His obituary lists the cause of death as heart seizure and his next of kin at death as his daughter, Dr. Eva Moise.
Wilhelm Reich's last will and testament left established the Wilhelm Reich Infant Trust Fund which was charged legally with operating Orgonon as the Wilhelm Reich Museum. The Museum now continues Reich's research and safeguards his archives. The Museum runs workshops and teaches people how to build and use orgone accumulators. It also runs a natural science program during the summer during which naturalists study the wildlife of Rangeley, Maine.
Reich, Wilhelm. Passion of Youth. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1988.
Reich, Wilhelm and K. R. Eissler. Reich Speaks of Freud. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1967.
Sykes, Gerald. "What is a 'Little Man' Made Of?" New York Times 31 October 1948, BR29.
This biographical sketch was prepared by Heather Stephenson.
Photo Credit: A.A. Brill. "Wilhelm Reich." c. 1922. Photograph. Licensed under Public Domain. Cropped to 4x3. Source: Elizabeth Danto (2007). Freud's Free Clinics: Psychoanalysis & Social Justice, 1918-1938. Columbia University Press, first published 2005, p. 84. Danto credits the A.A. Brill library at the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Vienna, Austria.