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Reviewed by:
  • Wilhelm Reich, Biologist by James E. Strick
  • Kirsten Leng
James E. Strick. Wilhelm Reich, Biologist. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015. 467pp. Ill. $39.95 (978-0-674-73609-2).

In Wilhelm Reich, Biologist, James Strick takes on the considerable task of rehabilitating Reich’s scientific reputation. This is no easy feat. As Strick notes early in the introduction, “few take his research program seriously. His laboratory science has largely been ignored by scholars. A huge, popular literature demonizes scientist-Reich as a charlatan, a pseudoscientist, at best a victim of mental illness deluded into thinking he was observing important things” (p. 2). The view of Reich as dangerously deluded and deceptive has been propagated by powerful actors including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the Menninger Clinic, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, whose legal case severely damaged Reich’s reputation (and ultimately landed him in prison) (p. 2).

From the outset, Strick bluntly asserts that such representations of Reich are “not correct, and that a much more complex and interesting story is involved” (p. 3). The strength of this claim rests heavily on newly available source material: namely, Reich’s unpublished laboratory notebooks, which document the experiments he conducted while in exile in Oslo between 1934 and 1939, and which were unavailable before November 2007. The laboratory notebooks are crucial to Strick’s recuperative endeavor: according to him, they reveal that Reich was “doing careful, state-of-the-art research in laboratory biology” (p. 3). Ultimately, they help underwrite Strick’s compelling case for viewing Reich as an innovative, boundary-breaking researcher whose laboratory experiments have much to offer present-day scientists. [End Page 563]

Making good use of Reich’s laboratory notebooks, Strick painstakingly reconstructs Reich’s experiments in great detail. While at times somewhat overwhelming, Strick’s intricate descriptions are necessary as they illuminate the care and precision with which Reich carried out his experiments. These details also help Strick clarify why most of Reich’s contemporaries were unable to replicate his findings. Strick points out that Reich used highly sophisticated equipment and prepared his samples in particular ways that were not observed and repeated by most of his detractors; their inferior equipment more readily supported their a priori convictions regarding Reich’s findings.

Strick takes great care to delineate the epistemic and ontological underpinnings of Reich’s experiments. He convincingly frames Reich’s laboratory work as an attempt to fill lacunae in psychoanalytic theory and practice by quantifying psychoanalysis’s claims regarding the relationship between mind and body. He also situates Reich’s work and thought within ongoing debates between mechanists and vitalists, representing Reich’s approach as offering a potential “third way” between the two positions. Furthermore, Strick unpacks Reich’s unconventional formulation of dialectical materialism and its integral role in Reich’s analyses of psychosomatic phenomena.

In addition to his intricate reconstruction and recontextualization of Reich’s experiments, Strick thoroughly debunks Reich’s critics and explains the origins of their opposition. Beyond contemporaries’ failure to repeat Reich’s experiments with precision, three factors emerge as decisive: first, changes within sciences, particularly the ascendancy of molecular biology; second, professional jealousies, which were especially inflamed as Depression-era scientists jockeyed for scarce research funds; and third, hostility provoked by Reich’s unwillingness to obey disciplinary norms, and his insistence on borrowing and recombining ideas and practices from psychology and a range of microbiological subfields. Strick’s persuasive defense ultimately supports his preferred frameworks for understanding Reich: namely, as an “independent scientist” in the vein of James Lovelock, and as a Kuhnian “revolutionary scientist” whose unconventional and interdisciplinary research represented a challenge to paradigmatic science.

In the epilogue, Strick argues for the continuing relevance of Reich’s work by noting the growing opposition to the strong program of molecular reductionism among present-day researchers in microbiology and cell biology. Strick points out that, in the eyes of many critics, the reductionist program “fails fundamentally to answer some of the most basic questions about what life is, how cells functions, and what drives evolution”—precisely the questions with which Reich grappled eighty years ago (p. 312). Moreover, Strick highlights a number...


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