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Wilhelm Reich, M.D. in Rangeley
A Presentation by
The Wilhelm Reich Infant Trust
to the Rangeley Lakes Historical Society
July 22, 2009
In July 1940, a renowned Austrian psychoanalyst, research physician and scientist named
Wilhelm Reich arrived completely by accident in the Rangeley Lakes Region for the first
time. He and his wife Ilse Ollendorff drove into Oquossoc during a rainstorm that had
essentially drowned out their camping trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire
where they had traveled several days earlier from Reich's home and laboratory in New
Seeking shelter from the storm, they found a small cabin for rent far down on the Bald
Mountain Road on the shoreline of Mooselookmeguntic Lake. The rains ended a short
time later. And there, over the next few days, in the dry and unhumid atmosphere of the
area Dr. Reich made several significant observations regarding his particular field of
research. These observations convinced him that the Rangeley Lakes Region would be
an ideal location for his research during the summer months, as opposed to the heat and
humidity of his home and laboratory in New York City.
Reich's unintended arrival here in the summer of 1940 was the beginning of what would
be a nearly seventeen-year presence in this community, first as one of the summer folks,
and later--starting in 1950--as a year-round resident. Seventeen years marked by
pioneering discoveries in medicine and science, great personal drama, and ultimately
In 1956, Wilhelm Reich's published books, research journals and bulletins--comprising
thousands of pages--were banned and burned by order of a United States Federal Court,
with the burning of this literature taking place both here in Rangeley and in New York
City. This destruction of several tons of Reich's publications about psychiatry,
medicine, biophysics and sociology constitutes one of the most heinous examples of
censorship in this country.
And all of this is a part of Rangeley history.
Unfortunately, although perhaps understandably, this is not a part of Rangeley history
that many people are comfortable with, or aware of, or even interested in. The story of
Wilhelm Reich as a part of local lore is plagued by widespread misunderstandings,
blatant distortions, sheer indifference and outright gossip. And at first glance Reich's
life and legacy certainly doesn't seem to be a natural fit with the more commonplace
traditions of Rangeley history that are preserved and celebrated by all of you in the
Historical Society, and by the Logging Museum, the public library and other community
And it's certainly not my goal this evening to belabor these points. But rather I will try to
illustrate what I believe is a commonality between Reich's reasons for being in Rangeley
and our reasons for being here. And our reasons, after all, are what inspire each of us to
preserve and honor and celebrate the diverse history of the Rangeley Lakes Region.
I've been coming to Rangeley since I was an infant in the 1950s. My family used to stay
at Rangeley Manor when Curt and Alice Mercer owned it, prior to Paul and Phyllis
Johnson's purchase in late 1972. And later, I owned my own small camp for thirteen
years. And like all of you, I was always fascinated by everything about Rangeley history:
its two railroads, its old hotels and sporting camps, its legacy of trout fishing, its logging
heritage and all of the colorful personalities who have been a part of this rich past.
I was an eighteen year-old college student camping out at the old Cold Spring
Campground north of town when I first visited the Wilhelm Reich Museum at Orgonon
in the early 1970s. I knew absolutely nothing about Wilhelm Reich, his name meant
nothing to me. The only reason I visited Orgonon was because it was a museum located
in Rangeley and so it was obviously some part of the community's history. And since
I've always been an avid student of all kinds of history, at the Museum I quickly became
intrigued by the chronology and the muscular storyline of Wilhelm Reich's life:
- Born in 1897, he was raised on a farm in the easternmost reaches of the Austro-
Hungarian Empire--now the Ukraine--where he grew up hunting, fishing, hiking
and becoming familiar with the rhythms of the natural world around him.
- He served as a lieutenant in the Austrian Army during World War I, where he saw
action on the Italian Front.
- After the war, he graduated from medical school at the University of Vienna,
studied psychoanalysis under Sigmund Freud and quickly became one of Freud's
most promising students.
- As with any psychoanalyst, the study of human neuroses and sexuality became a
focal point of his clinical work. And it's precisely the misunderstandings and
distortions of some of his work and theories in this area that would form the basis
of later rumors, slanders and inaccuracies, many of which we still hear to this day.
- First in Vienna, and later in Berlin, Reich was a renowned and widely published
physician, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst…and a very controversial one. Much
of the controversy surrounding him was due to his pioneering theories about
neuroses, health and human sexuality. Equally controversial was his political
activism which openly challenged the repressive authoritarian regimes of Austria
and Germany in the 1920s and 30s.
- When Hitler came to power in February 1933, Reich had to immediately flee from
Germany to avoid arrest by the Gestapo.
- Reich relocated to Norway and taught at the University of Oslo. There he set up a
scientific laboratory for the study of energy functions in the human body and in
other living substances, such as protozoa, blood, foodstuffs, soil and sand, and
living cancer cells. In fact, Reich was one of the early proponents of the use of time-lapse filming of microscopic cultures to capture the development of
biological processes in living substances over long periods of time.
- It was during these laboratory experiments in the 1930s that Reich discovered a
powerful, new biological energy in specific micro-organisms, a biological energy
that exhibited visible radiation phenomena, that immobilized and destroyed
cancer cells, and invigorated blood and tissue. Reich called this biological energy
"orgone energy," and he would devote the next two decades of his life to the
investigation of its laws, properties and uses, starting with experimental medical
research and later moving into other applications.
- In August 1939, Reich emigrated to America, disembarking from a ship in New
York City on August 26th, five days before the outbreak of World War II. Had he
remained in Norway, it is unlikely that Reich would have survived the imminent
Nazi occupation of that country.
Now from an intellectual standpoint--as an eighteen year-old college student touring the
Museum--I found all of this quite compelling, especially Reich's laboratory research and
his discovery of a physical, biological energy in microscopic cultures with all kinds of
medical and scientific applications. But I kept asking myself--as I'm sure all of you are
doing now--"What does a man's discovery of an energy radiation in a test-tube culture
have to do with Rangeley, Maine?" And the answer was not long in coming--nor will it
be for you this evening.
Reich settled down in the Forest Hills section of New York City, and for three semesters
he taught at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan. The New School faculty
at the time included many intellectual and political refugees from foreign countries.
Reich also set up his own private press to publish his numerous European books in
English. He trained physicians in his innovative psychiatric techniques. And perhaps
most important, he re-established his laboratory in his home to continue his orgone
In early 1940, in order to contain, observe and study orgone radiation from test-tube
cultures, Reich constructed small containers of alternating layers of metallic and organic
material which would hold in this energy. These were the first orgone energy
accumulators. Initially they were used to observe visual manifestations of orgone
emanating from test-tube cultures within the enclosure, and to test the effects of orgone
radiation on cancer mice…results that, in fact, were very promising in terms of dissolving
Which brings us up to July 1940, with Wilhelm Reich in that rental cabin down on the
Bald Mountain Road. Reich's observations of the clear, dry atmosphere over
Mooselookmeguntic revealed similar visual phenomena to that which he was observing
in those small orgone energy accumulators, leading him to conclude that the same energy
he had discovered in specific micro-organisms also exists in the atmosphere all around
us, everywhere. And that, in fact, the orgone energy that exists in living matter--including the human body--originates in the atmosphere as a primordial cosmic energy.
Furthermore, these small orgone accumulators--built of alternating layers of metallic and
organic materials--could attract, accumulate and contain atmospheric orgone energy for
a variety of applications.
Now to anyone unfamiliar with Reich's scientific and medical publications, all of this
obviously sounds fantastical. But in his published research journals, bulletins and books,
Reich and his co-workers would painstakingly document all of their medical and
The significance, then, of Reich's first visit to the Rangeley region in July 1940 is this:
With Reich's discovery of atmospheric orgone energy, he realized he could no longer
confine his research to the study of this energy in micro-organisms in his New York
laboratory. To observe and study and harness atmospheric orgone energy in its most
natural and pristine state required a clean, dry, unhumid atmosphere, together with an
unspoiled natural landscape that could provide large and uninterrupted vistas of
mountains, lakes and big skies.
And so, like all of us drawn to the natural beauty of the Rangeley region, like all of us
who are continually nourished and inspired by these unspoiled natural surroundings, so
too was Reich drawn to Rangeley's natural environment, and deeply inspired by it for the
profound opportunities it afforded him to scientifically investigate orgone energy in the
atmosphere and in living matter.
As Gary Priest documents in his wonderful new book, The Gilded Age of Rangeley,
Maine, in the fall of 1940 Reich purchased a nearby cabin on the Bald Mountain Road
built by Herman Templeton who became Reich's friend and his first caretaker. And
during the next few summers, Reich spent several weeks at this cabin, combining family
vacation time with his scientific research.
Back in New York, his research was taking him into new areas of experimental medicine
involving newer applications of the orgone energy accumulator. Because his results
using small accumulators on cancer mice were so promising, in 1941 Reich began using
large accumulators for the experimental treatment of terminal cancer patients. In many
cases the patient's pain was alleviated and cancer tumors dissolved, yet the patients still
died, leading Reich to conclude that the tumor itself was not the cancer, but merely a
local manifestation of a deeper systemic disorder in one's body.
And contrary to widespread rumors that persist to this day, Wilhelm Reich never
promoted the orgone accumulator as a cancer cure. In patient affidavits and in his
publications Reich clearly states that despite many promising results, orgone radiation via
the accumulator is not a cure. The other common misconception about the orgone
accumulator is that it is some sort of sexual device for enhancing one's performance, a
salacious allegation first printed by a journalist in 1947 and repeated ad nauseum ever
since. Similarly, Reich clearly refutes this in print, emphasizing that the orgone
accumulator is an experimental scientific and medical tool.
In November 1942, Reich purchased a 160-acre farm on Dodge Pond Road from a Mrs.
Love for what he felt was the inflated price of $4000. This was Reich's first step toward
fulfilling his dream of establishing a permanent home for his work: a laboratory and
research center devoted to scientific and medical applications of orgone energy. And on
a personal note, Reich had grown up on a farm in eastern Europe and always said he
wanted to return to a farm some day. Now he was a step closer to realizing that dream as
In his diary, he wrote this about the property on the Dodge Pond Road:
"A hundred and sixty acres of soft land on a soft incline
facing south and east, six hundred meters above sea level,
covered with a young pine forest, a lake in front, and
mountains on the horizon. Here truth shall be sought
and protected from the plague, here sickness and misery
shall be understood and ways discovered for conquering
them. The name of the home of life research shall be Orgonon."
The design and location of the buildings at Orgonon are one of the most visible
manifestations of the integration of Reich's research with the surrounding natural
environment. For example, in 1945 the Student Laboratory was built, using original
timbers from the barn that stood on the property when Reich purchased it. Today this is
our Conference & Office Building, and is clearly visible from Dodge Pond Road.
It was purposely built with oversized windows--one after the other--facing east,
southeast and south to take advantage of the panorama of open skies, open fields, distant
mountains and what was then an unobstructed view of Dodge Pond. Here in this
laboratory Reich's students and co-workers conducted orgone energy research using
microscopes, telescopes, orgone accumulators of varying sizes and strengths,
electroscopes, Geiger counters, oscilloscopes and other equipment. This building was
the venue of numerous seminars, classes and conferences. In 1949, the first course in
orgone biophysics--with an emphasis on cancer research--was given to a group of
The other major building on the property is the Orgone Energy Observatory, high on a
hill and not visible from the road. This building now houses the The Wilhelm Reich
Museum. It's listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and some say its
architecture resembles a design by Frank Lloyd Wright. In one of his research bulletins
in 1950, Reich wrote this about the building:
"The layout for the Orgone Energy Observatory was planned
in March 1948. In the beginning of May 1948, plans had been
finished by architect James. J. Bell of New York City. In the
beginning of June 1948, S.A. Collins & Sons of Rangeley, Maine
began the construction.
The construction went on from June 10th until October 15, 1948.
And from May 12th until September 19, 1949, altogether approximately
eight months. The outer walls were constructed of fieldstones,
24 inches at the foundation and 20 inches at the walls proper.
The fieldstones were gathered from the property of the Institute
at Orgonon. The Observatory includes a hall on the first floor,
approximately 54 x 34 feet, mainly for physical experimentation.
A library and conference room on the second floor with an
observation deck. An observatory tower on the third floor with
a cement base arranged for the future installment of an eight or
ten-inch refractor telescope. It will serve mainly for the observation
of the rotating orgone envelope of the earth.
The western wing has a flat roof suitable as a deck for observation
of the western sky. The roof of the main building is flat and also
usable for observation. The deck overlooks the whole region
above the surrounding hills. The White Mountains 100 miles away
to the south, Saddleback Mountain to the east, and Mount Bigelow
to the northeast form important points of observation. Two lakes,
Dodge Pond to the east and Rangeley Lake to the south, provide
excellent areas for observations of the pulsatory movement of
the atmospheric orgone energy."
Reich also planned to build a hospital at Orgonon, going so far as to explore the State of
Maine's legal and licensing requirements, and having an architect draw up a rendition of
the building. Over the years Reich's research center at Orgonon became the site for
numerous pioneering experiments including:
- Applications of the Reich Blood Test, as a diagnostic tool for the early detection
- Testing the effects of orgone energy on radium needles in 1951, in search of a
possible antidote to nuclear radiation sickness
- Using an invention called a "cloudbuster" to alter orgone energy movements in
the atmosphere for weather experimentation
- Successfully operating a small motor propelled by atmospheric orgone energy
Regrettably, Reich's medical and scientific research was disrupted because of the Food
and Drug Administration's determination to put an end to his work. The FDA's seven
year campaign against Reich was ignited by an inaccurate article about him in New
Republic magazine in 1947, claiming that the orgone accumulators were being rented and
sold as sexual devices and cure-alls, and casting aspersions on Reich's cancer research
and other aspects of his work.
In fact, in the mid-1940s, Reich had begun to rent and sell orgone accumulators to those
who wanted to use them experimentally at home. Reich's reason for this was to allow
more people to experience and experiment with the potential benefits of orgone energy
and to provide Reich and his co-workers with more feedback and more data regarding the
effects of orgone radiation on the human organism. Herman Templeton's daughter,
Clista, down on the Bald Mountain Road, was in charge of building and shipping these
accumulators. Later, S.A. Collins & Sons in Rangeley would assume these
The FDA was convinced, despite Reich's extensive published research, that orgone
energy does not exist and consequently that the orgone accumulators were fraudulent
devices. This opinion was shared by the American Medical, Psychiatric, and
Psychoanalytic Associations, all of whom supported and cooperated with the FDA's
efforts. The complexities of this legal case would require an entirely separate
presentation. Suffice it to say that in 1954, a Federal court issued an Injunction
forbidding the interstate shipment of orgone accumulators as well as Reich's books,
research journals and bulletins, which the FDA considered labeling for fraudulent
The Injunction also ordered the destruction of these accumulators and much of Reich's
literature. These orders were carried out both here in Rangeley and in New York City.
Reich was eventually convicted of contempt of court and he died in the Federal
Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania on November 3, 1957. He was 60 years old.
Several days prior to his incarceration, Reich created a Trust in his name--called the
Wilhelm Reich Infant Trust--to protect his legacy from distortion and falsification, to
preserve his property at Orgonon, and to safeguard his Archives. Today, The Wilhelm
Reich Infant Trust--of which I am one of the Directors--operates The Wilhelm Reich
Museum. The Museum itself and our annual conferences attract visitors from across the
country and across the world to the Rangeley region.
The Trust also manages Reich's Archives which are located at the Countway Library of
Medicine at Harvard University, one of the world's premier medical libraries. And since
1959, the Trust has worked with New York publisher Farrar Straus and Giroux to bring
all of Reich's books back into print, in addition to publishing eight new titles, for a total
of twenty-one books.
My background is in film and writing, and we now have two film projects in various
stages of development: a completed screenplay about Reich that I've written which
covers 25 years of his life from 1933 to 1957, and a documentary film project. These
two projects, like everything we do, are consistent with the Trust's mission to preserve
and protect Reich's scientific legacy from distortion and falsification.
And so if anything I've said this evening has piqued your curiosity, we hope you'll come
visit us at Orgonon as just another way of deepening your appreciation of the richness
and diversity of Rangeley history. Thank you for listening, and thank you for this
opportunity to be here.
The Wilhelm Reich Infant Trust
Help us maintain the legacy of Wilhelm Reich by making a tax-deductible donation.