Wilhelm Reich Biography

(One of the Most Radical Figures in the History of Psychiatry)

Birthday: March 24, 1897 (Aries)

Born In: Dobryanychi, Ukraine

Wilhelm Reich was an Austrian psychoanalyst who is known for his development of a unique system of psychoanalysis, which concentrated more on character structures than on individual neurotic symptoms. Born in modern day Ukraine towards the end of the 19th century, Reich was brought up on his father’s cattle farm where he became aware of sexual behavior in animals at an early age. Later, he studied medicine at the University of Vienna and while doing so, he came in contact with Sigmund Freud and became one of his most promising students. Under Freud’s patronage, he held many important posts and published his first book at 28. But soon his theories became too radical even for Freud and he lost his patronage. Thereafter, he moved to Berlin and from there to Oslo before relocating to the USA. Here, he claimed to have discovered an omnipresent cosmic energy called ‘orgone’, which could supposedly cure all mental and physical ailments. Later, he made a box-like structure, calling it ‘orgone accumulator’ to treat his patients. However, it led to his conflict with FDA, which became the reason of his arrest and imprisonment. He died while serving his jail term, ignored by the world.
Quick Facts

Died At Age: 60


Spouse/Ex-: Annie Reich (m. 1922–1933), Aurora Karrer (1955–1957), Ilse Ollendorff Reich (m. 1946–1951)

father: Leon Reich

mother: Cecilia Roniger

children: Eva Reich [de] (1924–2008), Lore Reich Rubin (b. 1928), Peter Reich (b. 1944)

Born Country: Ukraine

Psychologists Austrian Men

Died on: November 3, 1957

place of death: Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, United States

Cause of Death: Heart Failure

Ancestry: Austrian American

More Facts

education: University Of Vienna

  • 1

    What is Wilhelm Reich known for?

    Wilhelm Reich was an Austrian psychoanalyst and psychiatrist known for his controversial theories on human sexuality and the concept of orgone energy.
  • 2

    What is orgone energy according to Wilhelm Reich?

    Orgone energy is a hypothetical universal life force that Reich believed to exist in all living organisms. He claimed that it could be manipulated to improve physical and mental health.
  • 3

    How did Wilhelm Reich's work influence the field of psychology?

    Wilhelm Reich's work had a significant impact on the field of psychology by challenging traditional psychoanalytic theories and promoting a more holistic approach to mental health. His emphasis on the importance of sexuality and the mind-body connection was groundbreaking.
  • 4

    What were some of the criticisms and controversies surrounding Wilhelm Reich?

    Wilhelm Reich faced criticism and controversy throughout his career, including accusations of quackery and pseudoscience for his orgone energy theories. He also clashed with mainstream psychoanalytic institutions, leading to his expulsion from the International Psychoanalytical Association.
Childhood & Early Life
Wilhelm Reich was born on 24 March 1897 in Dobzau, Galicia, now in Ukraine. At that time, Galicia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father Leon Reich was a well-to-do farmer. He has been described as a cold and authoritarian man. Wilhelm’s mother’s name was Cäcilie (née Roniger).
Born eldest of his parents’ two surviving children, he had a younger brother called Robert. Although their parents were Jewish, he and his brother did not observe it growing up and were taught to converse only in German. They were punished if they used Yiddish expressions or played with local Yiddish-speaking children.
Shortly after Wilhelm’s birth, his family moved to Jujinetz, a village in Bukovina, where his father opened a large cattle farm, spread over 2000 acres. His formative years were spent close to nature, watching cattle farming and breeding, and becoming familiar with sexual functions at a very early age.
According to his diary, he first tried to have sex with a maid at the age of four. When he was eight, he began to breed butterflies and insects under the guidance of his home tutor. From the age of 11, he started having regular sex with another chambermaid.
While his father was authoritarian in nature, Reich idealized his mother. Therefore, when at the age of 12, he found his mother having sex with his home tutor, he found himself tangled in a mixture of eroticism, anger and inadequacy. Eventually, he told his father about his mother’s affair.
After learning about his wife’s affair, he mercilessly beat her up. In 1910, after a protracted period of beating, she committed suicide by drinking a lye mixture. Wilhelm blamed himself for the tragedy.
Initially, he was schooled at home. But after his mother’s affair became known, the home tutor was discharged and Reich was sent to an all boys’ gymnasium in Czernowitz, where he studied until his father’s death in 1914. Thereafter, he returned home to look after the farm.
In addition to working on the farm, he continued his studies and graduated with Stimmeneinhelligkeit in 1915. That summer, the Russians invaded Bukovina, forcing the brothers to leave their home for good. In the same year, Wilhelm joined the Austro-Hungarian Army and fought at the Italian front until 1918.
In 1918, Wilhelm enrolled in the University of Vienna to study law, but switched to medicine after the first semester. Since he was a war veteran, he was allowed to complete a combined M.B.B.S. and M.D. course within four years, instead of six.
In 1919, while Reich was still an undergraduate student, he met Sigmund Freud, who accepted him as a guest member in his Viennese Psychoanalytic Society in October 1920. Very soon, he became one of its most active members and began to be considered one of Freud’s most promising students.
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Early Career
In 1922, Wilhelm Reich received his MD degree and began his career in internal medicine at Vienna’s University Hospital. Additionally, he began serving as the first clinical assistant at Freud’s Psychoanalytic Polyclinic in Vienna - a position he held until 1928.
From 1922 to 1924, he pursued his post graduate education, studying neuro-psychiatry at the Neurological and Psychiatric University Clinic under Professor Wagner-Jauregg alongside working at the Psychoanalytic Polyclinic. He also worked in the disturbed wards under Paul Schilder for one year.
In 1924, Reich joined the faculty of the Psychoanalytic Institute in Vienna, eventually becoming its director of training, giving lectures on clinical subjects and bio-psychiatric theory. From 1924, he also began to conduct research on the social causation of the neurosis not only at the polyclinic, but also at other places.
In 1925, he published his first book, ‘Der triebhafte Charakter: eine psychoanalytische Studie zur Pathologie des Ich’ (The Impulsive Character: A Psychoanalytic Study of the Pathology of the Self). The work, based on his observations of antisocial personalities, earned him professional recognition.
In 1927, Reich became a member of the executive committee of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. In the same year, he also started six sex counselling clinics, where he counselled working class patients free of cost. He then published his second book, ‘Die Funktion des Orgasmus’ (The Function of the Orgasm).
In 1928, he became Vice Director of Psychoanalytic Polyclinic, holding the position till 1930. He also held the position of Director of the Seminar for Psychoanalytic Therapy at the same institution. However, by then, he began to have differences with Freud.
Contrary to Freud’s later ideas, Reich proclaimed that sexual energy existed in reality and sexual gratification alleviated neurotic symptoms. According to him orgasms helped individuals maintain equilibrium of the body by discharging excess energy. Therefore, sexual needs of an individual must get priority over social institutions.
On Leaving Vienna
Possibly because of his differences with Freud, Wilhelm Reich moved to Berlin in 1930. There, he joined Communist Party of Germany and began to treat patients outside the realms of psychoanalysis. Slowly, he began to acquire the reputation of a madman.
In August 1934, he had to resign from the International Psychoanalytical Association for prioritizing his ideas over Freud's theories. In October, he moved to Oslo, where he lived until 1939. But there too, he became very unpopular and was not given the license to practice medicine.
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In August 1939, Wilhelm Reich moved to the USA, where he began teaching at The New School, a private research university in New York City, remaining with it until May 1941. While teaching there, he privately started experimenting on mice and developed his ‘orgone theory’.
According to him, orgone was an omnipresent cosmic energy, which could improve mental as well as physical health of a person. In 1940, he built ‘orgone accumulators’, which he claimed could concentrate orgone. While initial boxes were made for laboratory animals, the first human size box was built in December 1940.
Although he did not have the license to practice medicine in the United States, Reich now started treating patients suffering from cancer and schizophrenia with his ‘orgone accumulators’. Eventually, a cancer patient’s father complained to the American Medical Association about his illegal practice.
In May 1941, Reich lost his job at The New School because its director believed that the school was not the appropriate institution for the kind of work he was doing. Around the same time, he was also evicted from his rented home when his neighbours complained about his laboratory animals.
On 12 December 1941, a day after Germany declared war on the United States, Reich was arrested by FBI. Although he was released on 5 January 1942, he remained under surveillance until 1943, when it was decided that he was not a threat to the USA.
In November 1942, he bought a large farm in Maine, which he named Orgonon. There he built a laboratory and an observatory apart from several log cabins. However, until 1950, he treated it as his summer house; spending greater part of the year in New York.
In 1950, Reich established the Orgonomic Infant Research Center (OIRC) in the basement of his house in Maine. His aim was to prevent muscular armouring in children from birth; but it had to be closed down in 1952, when a nurse complained that a therapist had taught her son to masturbate.
In 1951, Reich claimed to have discovered another cosmic energy, which he called deadly orgone radiation (DOR) and said that its accumulation played a role in desertification. He designed a "cloudbuster", which he believed could unblock orgone energy in the atmosphere and cause rain.
He conducted several experiments with his “cloudbuster” before he was commissioned by two farmers to bring rain during a drought in 1953. He used his machine on the morning of 6 July 1953, and it rained that evening.
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Last Years
When ‘orgone accumulators’ became popular among a section of people, FDA began to investigate it. Eventually, in February 1954, a complaint was filed, seeking a permanent injunction on the interstate shipment of ‘orgone accumulators’ and their promotion.
Reich, suffering from a delusion that he had powerful friends in the government, refused to appear in the court. Subsequently, on 19 March 1954, an injunction was granted by default, ordering the destruction of all accumulators, their parts and instructions. Several of Reich's books, which mentioned orgone, were also withheld.
After the injunction was granted, Reich’s mental health began to further deteriorate, and he began to believe that Earth was under attack from UFOs, which he called ‘energy alphas’. Armed with cloudbusters, he would chase the so-called UFOs throughout the night, calling it a “full scale interplanetary battle”.
in May 1956, an FDA agent, posing as a customer, ordered an accumulator part. One of Reich’s associates fell into the trap and sent it to another state by mail. Eventually, Reich and one of his associates were charged with contempt of court.
On May 7, 1956, Reich was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. Although he appealed in a higher court, nothing came of it, and he was sent to Danbury Federal Prison on 12 March 1957. Meanwhile, all his accumulators and associated literatures were destroyed at the order of the court.
On March 19, Reich was transferred to the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, where he spent his last days. His appeal for the presidential pardon was turned down. However, he kept hoping that he would be released soon; but that did not happen.
Major Works
Wilhelm Reich is remembered notably for his 1933 book, ‘Character Analysis’. In it, he argues that character structure, a system of secondary traits, is organizations of resistance with which individuals avoided facing their neuroses.
His two other important works were ‘The Mass Psychology of Fascism’ (1933) and ‘The Sexual Revolution’ (1936). In the first book, he tried to explain why people submit to authoritarianism even though its concept is not in their interest. In the second book, he dealt mainly with sexual neuroses.
Family & Personal Life
In March 1922, Reich married Annie Park, his fourth female patient. She was the daughter of a wealthy businessman who eventually became a well-known psychoanalyst herself. They divorced in 1933. The union produced two daughters, Eva and Lore, both of whom became doctors. Lore also became a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst.
In 1939, shortly after moving to the USA, Reich met Ilse Ollendorff. Very soon, they started living together and she began to organize his life by looking after his books and helping him in his laboratories. Their only son, Peter, was born in 1945, and they got married in 1946.
In September 1951, Reich divorced Ilse because he thought she was having an affair; but she continued to work for him for some more time. Later, she wrote his biography, 'Wilhelm Reich: A Personal Biography'. Interestingly, Reich had many affairs outside his marriage.
Reich died of heart failure on 3 November 1957, while serving his prison term at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. Later, he was buried in a vault at Orgonon, dug at his instruction in 1955. No academic journal published any obituary for him.
Facts About Wilhelm Reich
Wilhelm Reich was a psychoanalyst who developed the concept of "orgone energy," which he believed to be a universal life force present in all living organisms.
Reich's work on character analysis and the role of repressed emotions in psychological disorders was considered groundbreaking in the field of psychotherapy.
He was a student of Sigmund Freud and initially supported Freud's ideas before developing his own theories on sexuality and human behavior.
Reich's research and writings on sexual liberation and the importance of healthy sexual expression were controversial in his time but have had a lasting impact on the field of psychology.
Despite his unconventional theories and methods, Wilhelm Reich's work continues to be studied and discussed by psychologists, therapists, and scholars interested in the intersection of psychology, sexuality, and human behavior.

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