Sawbones: Mr. Reich's Sexbox


One afternoon, Albert Einstein spent an afternoon studying a box that was supposed to harness cosmic sex energy. This happened. Really. And this week on Sawbones, Dr. Sydnee and Justin will introduce you to Wilhelm Reich, the man who made that incredible moment possible.

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Music: "Medicines" by The Taxpayers


Reich's "Discovery" of orgone energy

When Reich was in Norway in the late 1930s, he was experimenting with what he believed was abiogenesis. He'd put dirt in an autoclave, and then suspend it in a sterile broth and seal the test tube; then he'd take samples of it every so often and look at it under a microscope. Since he didn't believe it was possible for bacteria to infect his samples from the air, he probably didn't take good precautions against infection -- so sure enough, he eventually saw bacteria and even amoebas growing in these presumably sterile test tubes. He thought they'd developed spontaneously, and that he'd discovered the origin of life.

When one of his students accidentally put beach sand in the autoclave instead of dirt, he put the resulting mixture under a microscope and noticed that it gave off an eerie blue glow, which had some properties consistent with ultraviolet light. Instead of assuming he'd found some new and remarkable chemical reaction between the beach sand and his broth, he believed he'd just discovered a totally new kind of energy. Soon, he started seeing this blue glow elsewhere in the lab, and assumed the energy must be omnipresent. "Aha!" he said to himself, "This must be the energy that flows through the human body and is so important to orgasms!" His basis for this conclusion? He liked the sound of it. To Reich, that was all that mattered.

His orgone accumulator boxes had layers with organic matter (e.g. cotton) on the outside, because Reich believed organic material absorbed this newly-discovered "orgone energy." The layers had metal on the inside, because his pitiful understanding of mainstream nuclear-radiation science told him that "metals radiate and reflect radiation." And, well, if it's good enough for nuclear radiation, it's good enough for orgone radiation too! Therefore, this box would collect orgone energy from the environment, and radiate it into the box's center. Q.E.D..

The "Orgasm Reflex"

A clarification: What Wilhelm Reich called "the orgasm reflex" wasn't an actual orgasm. It was a combination of quivering all over and a lifting of the pelvis, similar to what is seen during an orgasm. Reich believed that this was a sign that your character armor had been dissolved -- or at least, dissolved far enough to allow "trapped energy" to move upward out of your "pelvic segment".

Insurance claim for an orgone accumulator

Love the podcast.
I work in an insurance claims department and once (about 5-6 years ago) had a claimant with a compensable open wound laceration injury (and some unrelated medical problems) who wanted the insurance to cover a second hand orgone accumulator which was built by someone he found on the net. Needless to say, funding was not granted for this. We did end up having to pay for psych counselling on a without prejudice basis, without admission of liability, though. This claimant also had an amusing way of describing neurogenic pain too. I won't go into it, but he made up for his threats, abuse and rants with the hilarity. I felt a lot safer because I never had to deal with him in person like the vocational rehab consultant, doctors and allied health providers did.
Keep up the good work.
PS As soon as I started listening to your episode about alcoholism, I immediately wanted a drink and got out the open bottle of red wine! Bad, I know. Luckily I just got home and didn't have to drive! At least it has some antioxidants in there. My family history has no alcoholism or liver probs, so I think I'm OK.

Early 20th Century Sex Research

Do you happen to know if Reich had any contact with Magnus Hirschfeld, the Berlin sex reform activist and doctor? This sounds like something he would have had in the collections of his Institute for Sexology.

A lot of the early sexologists in Austria and Germany were Jewish medical folks, and a number of them also held fairly radical political views for the time (with communists and socialists well-known for their espousal of "free love," which could include everything from more egalitarian marriage and divorce laws to the decriminalization of homosexuality to polyamory--all fairly shocking and controversial for the period). Hirschfeld was himself Jewish, very openly gay, and a pacifist. After the Nazis rose to power, he wrote a book denouncing the eugenics movement. Also, that famous photo of a Nazi book burning was taken during the destruction of Hirschfeld's Institute.

(Hirschfeld did have some scientifically-dubious beliefs that are more Sawbones-worthy, mostly about how hormones work, but he generally seems to have been a pretty awesome person in the history of both medicine and LGBT rights.)

Love the show, and would love to see more discussions of weird sex research things and quackery!