Midweek Cuckoo: Wilhelm Reich
Wilhelm Reich, M.D. (1897-1957) claimed to have discovered "orgone energy", the most powerful force in the universe. Despite numerous attempts by many scientists, including Einstein himself, no one was ever able to find evidence in nature or in Reich's experiments that this energy existed.
Reich, who was initially trained as a psychoanalyst, became convinced that a biophysical energy permeated all things, and that this so called 'orgone' was massless, responsible for all life and is absorbed by all matter, both living and non-living. These orgones are responsible for, among other things, the colour of the sky, heat haze, gravity, galaxies, the failure of political revolutions, and a good orgasm. Reich, who was an associate of Freud, started all this muddy thinking by trying to find the energy responsible for libido, and apparently ended up discovering midichlorians. If he'd done it today, George Lucas would probably have sued.
Reich believed all disease was merely an imbalance in the body's orgone energy, and that these diseases such as cancer could be cured by addressing this imbalance. To this effect he built 'orgone accumulators' (basically just a telephone-booth sized box) that he had patients sit in. This apparently accumulated orgone energy, which was absorbed by the patient, leading to supposed miraculous recovery.
Another of Reich's inventions was his so-called 'cloudbuster', which used orgone energy to create rain. He also claimed that he had done battle with evil aliens who were attempting to increase the amount of negative orgone energy on earth.
Naturally the FDA was all over Reich and required that he prove that his orgone accumulator worked or quit making fraudulent claims. He responded that his science was so advanced that even if he tried to explain it, the FDA would not understand it. The FDA investigated anyway, found it to be useless, and ordered an injuction against Reich. When Reich continued 'treating' people with his orgone accumulators, he was thrown in jail. He died there of a heart attack a year later.
Despite the very obvious lunacy of his claims, Reich has his followers even today. Websites like orgonelab.org, orgone.org and orgonomy.org claim that his experiments have been verified, that he is a martyr to the evil FDA, and that orgonomy is a real science (they have their own journal and everything, so it must be). Also, you can buy their crackpot orgone devices and literature for plenty of money. There's even a museum. They get very upset if you tell them that their hero was a nutcase and that no one other than a true believer in orgonomy has every been able to reproduce his 'experiments' or 'proof'.
Some people say this guy was unfairly persecuted by the US Govt, that he didn't deserve to get thrown in jail. I think that when you are telling cancer patients you can cure their life threatening illness when you can't, you should either be in jail or an asylum. You certainly shouldn't just be left to run around giving false hope to people and taking their money.
The Straight Dope on Wilhelm Reich
Quackwatch on Wilhelm Reich
Skepdic.com on Wilhelm Reich