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2003 Summer Conference:

The Experimental Basis for Reich's Understanding of Cancer

This summer the Conference Building temporarily functioned again in its original role as a student laboratory. Microscopes and objectives, Bunsen burners, pipettes, slides, cover slips, and autoclaves filled the tables as participants gathered to study the microscopic work that led to Reich's discovery of the bionous nature of living matter and its significance for an understanding and treatment of cancer.

Instructors Stephen S. Nagy, M.D. and James Strick, Ph.D. introduced participants to the historical context and evolution of Reich's experiments, and to a basic understanding of the light microscope and Reich's use of and observations through this instrument.

Each day included lectures; hands-on work with microscopes to examine preparations described in Reich's books The Bion Experiments and The Cancer Biopathy; an optional open laboratory period in the afternoon; and evening presentations of Reich's original time-lapse films of bions and living cancer cells.

In addition, demonstrations of the Reich Blood Test were performed on willing volunteers who were then able to observe their blood at high magnifications using Dr. Nagy's sophisticated Zeiss microscope. This microscope played a significant role in one of the week's most exciting events, which is best described by Dr. Nagy himself:

Rediscovering Dr. Reich's 150x Microscope Objective

by Stephen S. Nagy, M.D.

A Scientific Puzzle

Ever since I first read a translation of "The Bions: An Investigation into the Origin of Life" in 1976 [1], I have been puzzled by comments made by Dr. Reich about his equipment. In the preface to the book, the "Essential Laboratory Equipment" is described as follows:

"The microscope. At present our institute possesses three large Reichert "Z" microscopes and one Leitz research microscope. With the Reichert microscopes it is easy to achieve a magnification of up to 3750x, as a result of the inclined binocular tubes, which increase the normal magnification by 50%. When a special Leitz 150x apochromat lens is used in conjunction with a 25x compensating ocular and the inclined binocular tubes, it is possible to achieve a magnification of up to 4500x, but with great difficulty." [2]

Like most new students of microscopy, I was initially fascinated by magnification, and this paragraph stood out as a demonstration of very high magnification. But as I learned more about microscopy over time, I found Dr. Reich's comments about the use of the Reichert with a Leitz 150x apochromat increasingly confusing. The facts, as far as I could determine, did not agree with his statements.

When this equipment was new in approximately 1936 or 1937, there were two accepted standards for the construction of the mechanical tube length of a biological microscope, or the distance separating the objective lens and the eyepiece: Reichert, Zeiss, Beck, Swift, Watson, and Bausch & Lomb all used a tube length of 160 mm for their microscopes, while Leitz alone used a 170mm tube length. The optical corrections of the two lenses that provided the magnification on these compound microscopes--the ocular and objective lenses--were based on the geometry of a correct tube length so that objectives and oculars could be used interchangeably among the former group, but use of an objective lens made by Leitz would introduce unacceptable spherical aberration into the image, visible as lack of image sharpness of "fuzziness" of the image.

This was especially true in the apochromats of the time, which needed a matching ocular to complete the optical corrections partially built-into the microscope objective lens. While achromatic lenses could probably be used without too great of a detriment in image quality, the use of an apochromat of high power in the incorrect mechanical tube would degrade the image significantly.

Could it be that Reich used a mismatched objective in his quest for higher magnification? Could this explain some of the fuzziness of the microscope images published by Reich?

Characteristics of Specific Lenses

Charles Patten Shillaber published his comprehensive reference text on photomicrography in 1943 [3], Photomicrography in Theory and Practice. This 773-page volume included tables of microscope objectives and their characteristics, listed by various microscope manufacturers. Lists were included of achromat, fluorite, and apochromatic lenses made by Leitz, Reichert, Zeiss, Swift, Watson, Bausch & Lomb, Beck, Spender, and Fuess, providing me with information about objectives that were available to Dr. Reich.

These tables showed that Leitz made apochromatic objectives for their 170mm tube length microscope with focal lengths of 2.0 mm and 3.0 mm, yielding a magnification of 92x for use with a cover glass of 0.16 to 0.18mm. Leitz made two versions of the 2.0mm apochromat, one with a numerical aperture of 1.32 and one with a numerical aperture of 1.4 .

Shillaber also listed Leitz apochromats made for metallurgical microscopes of mechanical tube length 215mm and for use without a cover glass. These were also 2mm focal length lenses with numerical apertures of 1.32 and 1.4 respectively, with a listed magnification of 170x. While the corrections in this lens included a compensation for the absent cover glass, the increased magnification was purely a consequence of the longer tube length, not because of any additional magnification in the objective.

There is no mention made of any apochromat with a shorter focal length (or higher magnification) made by Leitz in the lists compiled by Shillaber. Furthermore, the increased magnification of the objectives used in metallurgical microscopes was a result of their longer mechanical tube length; none of the apochromats had a focal length shorter than 2mm, which would have been necessary to produce the larger magnification in the objective lens. Hence, it seemed that Leitz could not be the manufacturer of the lens described by Dr. Reich, unless it was so very rare as not to be listed in the tables.

(Of interest is the observation that Reichert made an apochromat for tube length 160mm, cover glass thickness of 0.18mm, of focal length 1.5mm, numerical aperture 1.30, producing a magnification of 124x.)

An original brochure for the Reichert "Z" microscope published in 1938 came up for sale on Ebay. Although I was not successful in buying the original, the purchaser kindly supplied me with a photocopy, and this publication confirmed that the "Z" had a mechanical tube length of 160mm.

Where Was the Objective Lens Described by Reich?

Several years ago I corresponded with Mary Boyd Higgins, seeking to find out if Dr. Reich's special objective might still be at Orgonon. But a search at that time was unsuccessful. Ms. Higgins was not able to locate the objective.

Consequently, when I came to Orgonon in July to assist in teaching the lab course, I carried with me a sense of hopeful curiosity that I might be able to solve this mystery although I had no great expectation that the quest would be successful.

A discussion with Ms. Higgins at the Museum reception on Tuesday, July 16th led to her revelation that some of Dr. Reich's lab equipment was sold to help pay for legal expenses in the 1950s, and her speculation that the objective might have been sold as a way of raising funds. However, Ms. Higgins did give me permission to look carefully at the microscopes at the Museum, and to touch and examine what I found.

I looked at the objectives on the inverted Reichert microscope used for the time-lapse photomicrography, and at another "Z" microscope on the first floor of the Observatory. Then I looked at the two Reichert "Z" microscopes on the second floor where Reich did his last microscopic work. These are located in the small alcove at the top of the stairs, just off the study and library. Neither of these had objectives attached to the microscopes, but on a desk there were a number of metal canisters designed to hold objectives, and I turned by attention to these.

A search quickly turned up an objective made by W&H Seibert that had been stored in a Bausch & Lomb objective canister. The lens was jammed into the metal canister, and took gentle prying to remove. But out of the container, it was finished in bright chrome with an inscription on the side: "W&H Seibert, Wetzlar, F 150." Apart from a symbol of the firm and a serial number, no other information was inscribed, such as the mechanical tube length of the design or the numerical aperture of the objective. Of note was that the objective was a solid piece of metal and glass without a retractable front element. (The modern practice is to mount the front lens of the objective in a spring mount, to protect both the lens and the microscope slide from being damaged if one attempts to focus too closely to the slide.)

Could this be Dr. Reich's lost microscope objective? One of the other instructors at the course, Dr. James Strick, suggested that perhaps the markings indicated that the lens was a fluorite objective, or a "semi-apochromat."

The following day--Wednesday, July 16--the lab course was scheduled through mid-day. After lunch, a small group gathered in the "student laboratory" to see what we could learn about this "new" objective.

Testing the W&H Seibert Objective

With a great deal of eager anticipation the objective was fitted to the nosepiece of my Zeiss photomicroscope. But initial attempts to focus were not successful because it was designed to focus at a distance of 33mm from the shoulder of the nosepiece to the microscope slide, whereas the Zeiss was designed for a 45mm standard. Fortunately I had an adapter for "short mount" objectives, which put the objective within the possibility of being focused on the Zeiss frame.

My initial idea was to examine a diatom test plate mounted in Hyrax so that imaging the several diatoms would give an estimate of the numerical aperture of the objective. Because of the high magnification, it was clear that the lens would have a very small working distance between itself and the object to be imaged. Since it was constructed without a spring-protected front element, there was a chance of breaking the microscope slide from direct contact. Because the front lens of the objective was recessed into the metal housing, the objective was not in any significant danger of being damaged. Still I had some concern for the test slide and for the safety of my microscope's condenser if the slide broke. With some apprehension, I oiled the slide to the condenser, oiled the objective to the cover slip, and then attempted to focus on the diatoms on the test plate.

However, another problem arose: the Zeiss focus mechanism does not have a fine focus with an infinite range, but instead has a limited range between two mechanical stops. Hence, one needed to move the slide close enough to the objective using the coarse focus, then attempt to focus accurately using the fine focus.

On the initial attempt, I covered the entire range of the fine focus without finding a sharp image, and concluded that I was too far from the slide. The fine focus was racked back to the far end of its range, the slide lifted a little closer with the coarse focus, and attempts again were made to focus on the test plate, adjusting the fine focus a little at a time out of concern for the safety of the slide.

After what seemed like an eternity, with the microscopist (me) aware that there was no room for error and that the slide and condenser might be damaged with too large of a move…turning the fine focus…and again and again with no change in the image... while the observers in the room sat in silent expectation…

CRACK!!! The slide suddenly made a loud noise that shot through the silence!

The group gave a collective gasp, and I racked the slide away and looked for damage. A quick check showed that the cover slip was partially separated from the diatom mountant, with Newton's rings present under the cover slip showing evidence of spatial separation where there should have been none. But nothing was broken!

I was very grateful that Hyrax has some flexibility and "give" in its texture. It was apparent that the depth of the mountant on the slide would prevent us from getting close enough to the diatoms to look at them. So, if we could not view the test plate, what could we look at?

I considered a micrometer slide with fine rulings that would demonstrate the magnifying power of the objective, but rejected this for fear of breakage.

Dr. Strick suggested looking at a gram stain, but after the earlier experience I was concerned that we might attempt to focus on a part of the slide where there was very little to look at, and then go right through it.

So I concluded that we had to find another object. The thought of looking at fresh diatoms came to mind, and we heated a drop of a specimen taken from Angel Falls-- a local waterfall in the Rangeley Lakes Region--and anneal it to the slide. Then after oiling the condenser and objective lens again, we prepared to look at it. I felt confident that there would be adequate material on this slide to have an image of something, and that this would minimize the risk of damage.

After slow, cautious attempts to focus the lens, an image of the diatoms finally came into view. They were sharp and clear. The image was brilliant and crisp, and through Reich's objective we took some photos of Pinnularia and Terpsinoe diatoms [4]. Everyone who was present took a look, and it was an historic moment: the first use of Dr. Reich's microscope equipment in nearly fifty years, and a chance to look through the same objective that Dr. Reich used to make his observations of the bions in Norway!

Later, I examined the elements of the objective using a Bertrand lens on the microscope, and noted a number of fine particles or inclusions on or in an element of the lens. At first I thought that this was dust on the upper lens element, but later realized that these were imperfections in the natural fluorite used to make the lens, giving supporting evidence to the idea that this was a fluorite objective. (Modern objectives are constructed using optically perfect synthetic fluorite, but in the 1930s the natural material was all that was available.)

The Manufacturer: W&H Seibert

Subsequent research yielded more information about the firm W&H Seibert. Brian Bracegirdle has the following entry in his book Notes on Modern Microscope Manufacturer:


Seibert & Krafft, WETZLAR, Germany (1871-1884)
W&H Seibert, WETZLAR, Germany (1884 - c. 1925)

E Gundlach sold out to Seibert & Krafft when he went to the USA in 1871. A 12-page catalogue of 1883 (Katalog der Mikroskop, mikroskopischen u. mikrophotographischen Objektive & Apparate) shows that they sold a good range of microscopes and accessories, including good-quality objectives; some of them specially for photomicrography. None of the stands is very elaborate, and the photomicrographic apparatus is basic, but there is a wide range of objectives and accessories.

Wilhelm (1849 -1925) and Heinrich (1842 -1907) had issued 30 catalogues by 1903, including special lists for photomicrography and projection. They stated that they had sold 10,000 stands by 1900. Catalogue 55 of the 1920s lists an excellent range of stands and other equipment. [5]

What Did We Learn?

From this brief laboratory exercise we learned that Dr. Reich used a fluorite objective of good quality, of nominal magnification, of 150 diameters, manufactured by W&H Seibert at an unknown date but probably before 1925.

We had the historic opportunity to look through the objective which presumably provided Dr. Reich with his primary observations of bions, confirming that the image produced by this objective on a 160mm microscope body was clear and had good contrast. For an objective used for research in the 1930s, built at least 70 or 80 years ago, and considering that it was stored in a can for the last fifty years, the image was impressively sharp with no fogging or breakdown of the natural fluorite used to make the objective.

Although we were not able to image any diatoms with regular punctae, and thus to estimate the resolving power of the objective, we could see fine details of the diatoms clearly. Hence, any fuzziness in published photomicrographs was not caused by the optics of the microscope equipment Reich used, but may have been a result of the film used at that time. Or it may have been caused by other errors in the use of the microscope, such as closing down the iris diaphragm on the condenser excessively.

Finally, Dr. Reich did make an error in naming the manufacturer and corrections of this objections in The Bion Experiments. But this is a minor point and does not detract from our appreciation of the quality of the optics that he purchased and used in his research. 


  1. Wilhelm Reich. The Bions: An Investigation into the Origin of Life. Translated by Barbara Koopman, M.D., Ph.D. and Irmgard Bertelsen, B.S. from Die Bione, Sexpol Verlag, Oslo, 1938. Journal of Orgonomy 10 (1); May 1976, pp. 9-12.

  2. Wilhelm Reich. The Bion Experiments on the Origin of Life. Translated by Derek and Inge Jordan. Edited by Mary Boyd Higgins and Chester Raphael, M.D., New York: Octagon Books, 1979, p.7.

  3. Charles Patten Shillaber. Photomicrography in Theory and Practice. New York: John Wiley and Sons. 1944.

  4. Photos were taken with a Kodak MDS 100 camera mounted over a Nikon CF 15x eyepiece, with an Optovar setting of 1.25. Hence, the calculated magnification of the images is 2812.5x. Note that this eyepiece has no chromatic corrections in it, and would not be considered a "good match" for the fluorite objective, which should be used with a corresponding Seibert eyepiece for optimal results; but the photos are very sharp.

  5. Brian Bracegirdle. Notes on Modern Microscope Manufacturers. Quekett Microscopical Club, 1966, pp. 65-6.

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