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October 18, 2004

Dr Jacques Benveniste: The Case of the Missing Energy


Following the recent death of the renowned, some say infamous, scientist Jacques Benveniste, I am reminded of the words of Herman Hesse:

"The bourgeois today burns as heretics and hangs as criminals those to whom he erects monuments tomorrow" ('Steppenwolf')

A few days ago Benveniste's death was lamented by the French newspaper Le Monde, who said of his passing away that the world of "biology has lost one of its most brilliant, original and most impassioned researchers", words of praise that come rather belatedly.

Jacques Benveniste was 69 years old and died in hospital during surgery.

I felt that this following chapter from Martin Walker's "Dirty Medicine" would be an enlightening tribute to his life and works.

Best wishes

Emma Holister

Dr Jacques Benveniste: The Case of the Missing Energy

From the book "Dirty Medicine" by Martin Walker (1993)

"French biology has been 'Cocacolonized'. If you come to France with your dog, you have to tell the dog to bark in English or American. If as well you put a sign on his head, which says 'scientist', he will be met with respect everywhere he goes."

In 1988, the reputation of Doctor Jacques Benveniste, one of France's leading biologists, was almost destroyed. His work was internationally labelled as fraudulent and he was held up to ridicule. He nearly lost his post with INSERM, the French national medical research institution.

Five years later, news has not travelled fast enough nor reached the furthest corners with sufficient intensity, to inform many people that what was said about Benveniste and his research into the effects of homeopathic dilutions consisted mainly of innuendo and propaganda.

Jacques Benveniste is a well-respected French scientist. He will tell you that he is an immunologist, and that is all he is: this though is to undervalue him. He is an entertaining and charismatic man who has a considerable history as a medical research scientist. He is committed to one of the most exciting areas of biological research: the communication between cells, especially the cells which make up the human immune system. He has devoted his life to trying to discover the pathways between a select group of cells which are activated when foreign substances enter the human body. He has a good track record, but like many immunologists who have strayed from orthodox pharmaceutical research and become involved with alternatives, he feels that the American, British and French scientific establishments have deprived him of deserved accolades.

After training as a doctor and working with cancer patients for twenty years, Benveniste began research into allergic conditions. On this subject he speaks with the common bitterness which many allergists feel about their governments and the orthodox medical establishment.

" I set up a group to research allergy inside INSERM, but this is the only group which is researching at a basic level problems which affect 15% of the population. At the same time, one billion francs are spent on pharmaceuticals for allergy each year."

The amount of money which the population spends on pharmaceutical preparations for allergy would be irrelevant if such preparations helped to resolve the problem. Benveniste believes, as do many others both inside and outside orthodox medicine, that drug solutions to allergy do nothing more than alleviate a minority of the symptoms: moreover Benveniste believes that chemicals generally take an increasing toll on health, creating more immune system illnesses. "There has been practically no progress in the treatment of asthma and more generally in the management of allergy, in twenty years. Despite all the Nobel prizes given for work in this area, more people die today of asthma than did twenty years ago."

Benveniste's research into allergy has taken him deep into the mechanisms which create such responses. Understanding that the smallest amount of a substance affects the organism - "A person can enter a room two days after a cat has left it and still suffer an allergic response" - led Benveniste to research how homeopathic dilutions appear to have a real and material effect upon immune system cells called basophils. He was subsidised in this work by a company which produced homeopathic remedies.

Benveniste's lack of commitment to the pharmaceutical companies and his implacable commitment to what he believes should be the French position in international science have frequently brought him into conflict with the international medical research establishment. Throughout these conflicts he has made a name for himself as a scientist who will fight his corner.

He sees himself now isolated to some extent because of this consistent opposition.

"When there was a large conference on allergy in the beginning of the eighties in Britain, I sent a public letter to everyone. The French government sent no French scientists of international renown. I was at that time leading the most productive French allergy research group and I was not even invited. There were 0.3% French people in the programme, with 65% Anglo-American."

As the biggest drug companies moved into immunology and the kudos and money attached to finding cures for asthma and allergy grew, so did the anger and resentment against Jacques Benveniste. He found that his discoveries were often deprecated by the scientific establishment and he was not recognised for them. "I was known previously, in 1972, for the discovery of a small molecule. It is called the 'platelet activating factor' (PAF). This discovery went against the grain of mainstream medical research."

Benveniste puts his isolation partly down to the facts that he is French, and that he has not worked closely with a major pharmaceutical company.

"For example, in asthma research, during the seventies, medical research workers promoted very heavily in papers all over the place, that leukotrienes were the molecules that did the job. There was enormous interest from the drug companies, who all wanted to get involved. Ten years later, it is clear that leukotrienes have only a modest importance in asthma treatment. We are still waiting for real progress to be made."

Benveniste feels that throughout the eighties he was excluded and isolated from the discussions around his own work and discoveries. He was excluded from committees and scientific seminars and conferences.

While other medical scientists have worked on histamine and helped the drug companies generate huge profits from 'me-too' (copy-cat drugs which have not been researched but copied by the producing company) anti-histamines, Benveniste's independence has led him to be considered a troublemaker and a maverick.

* * *

On June 30th 1988, Nature, Britain's top scientific journal, published a paper authored by thirteen scientists, including Jacques Benveniste of Paris Sud University. The paper, entitled 'Human basophil degranulation triggered by very dilute antiserum against IgE', was the result of a five-year study which showed that, even in great dilutions, aqueous solutions of antibodies retained biological activity which was not present in plain water.

This paper in Nature was, however, no ordinary scientific publication. It was accompanied by a most unusual editorial written by John Maddox, the journal's editor. It was prudent, Maddox said, "to ask more carefully than usual whether Benveniste's observations may be correct". According to Maddox, the conclusions of the paper struck at the roots of two centuries of observation and rationalization of physical phenomena. Using the most irrational language, Maddox wrote that "there can be no justification at this stage to use Benveniste's conclusions for the malign purposes to which they might be put".

Benveniste had designed his experiments in 1982, and began work in 1983. The salaries of the large INSERM team which he heads - the INSERM unit for immuno-pharmacology and allergy (INSERM U200) at Clamart, Paris - are paid by the French government. Practically all the medical research in France comes under the control of INSERM, which is roughly equivalent to the British Medical Research Council.

As Benveniste's work involved homeopathic preparations, he received help from a small homeopathic company, LHF, which in 1987 was bought up by the biggest - though still very small in pharmaceutical terms, - French homeopathic company, Boiron. While he was working for Boiron, Benveniste was also working on contracts for mainstream pharmaceutical companies. In 1989, two other homoeopathic companies took over from Boiron, one French, Dolisos, and the other, Homint, half-German and half-Dutch.

The first problem that Benveniste encountered with his work came in 1985, when interim results were leaked and then taken up in a full-page article in Le Monde. Following the Le Monde article, Benveniste was invited onto a popular TV discussion show, where he found himself being heavily attacked. Although he had no means of knowing it, this attack was the first skirmish in a war declared upon him by a then unknown enemy. Like a guerrilla army, this enemy did not wear a uniform, and fought covertly.

Benveniste's antagonist on the television programme, a scientist, did most damage when he asked Benveniste "in front of the cameras, while the whole of France watched", if he knew what a "control" was? (In research, a control group is one which is not experimented upon, but which is exactly similar in composition to that subjected to the experimental intervention. Most scientists consider the control to be one of the essential components of correct research method.) The question itself was so rudimentary and therefore so damning that, Benveniste says, it left him without a voice. The question stripped him of his experience, his advanced knowledge in the field and his status as an internationally renowned scientist. Benveniste was not able within the parameters of the discussion to outline his expert experience. "I had already published four papers in Nature and over 200 scientific articles, two of which are called 'citation classics' by the Philadelphia Institute for Scientific Information, and there I was being asked in front of millions of lay people whether I knew what a control was."

It was during that programme that Benveniste realised that he was going to meet some hard opposition to his work. More than anything, he was amazed by the vehemence of the argument used against him. Being a reasonable man and an intellectual, he had expected a debate, not the kind of anger which was now hurled at him. He felt, he says, like a European intellectual who, on visiting a Muslim country, had denied the existence of God. It was as if the opposition wanted to kill him. To Benveniste, this attitude was antipathetic to science or any kind of intellectual discourse.

"I was completely overcome because for me it is not worth dying for ideas. I cannot understand that scientific data is important enough for everyone to get on their feet and start a bloody war."

Benveniste submitted the results of his research in a paper to Nature in 1986. At the same time he submitted papers to the British journal of Clinical Pharmacology and the European Journal of Pharmacology. Both the latter articles were eventually accepted and published in 1988 and 1987. In these two journals, Benveniste's work was treated as conventional research. There were a few questions before publication about the way the statistics were handled.

Benveniste got no answer from Nature until a year after he had submitted the paper. A more usual delay might be two or three months. The next communication from Nature was a demand that he should arrange for the work upon which the paper was based to be reproduced in other laboratories before publication. To Benveniste, this demand went against the grain of any scientific research. Such a principle, if it were put into effect universally, would make the whole scientific process unworkable. "Which scientists are going to give their unpublished data to other scientists to check?"

It began to dawn on Benveniste that someone was "having him on", not with any sense of humour but with quiet derisory intent. Believing that he had become involved against his will in a struggle not only to preserve his own good name, but to defend the objective basis of scientific research, Benveniste agreed to the demand. He found two laboratories, one in Israel and one in Canada, which willingly replicated his work and his results. A team from Italy also replicated the work, doing eight experiments, of which they were happy with seven. All the results were then sent to Nature in the summer of 1987, with the revised paper signed by all the scientists who had carried out the work. Benveniste heaved a sigh of relief. As far as he was concerned, the matter was over: he could return to his research.

In the first quarter of 1988, John Maddox faxed Benveniste with a peer review of the first paper he had submitted eighteen months previously. This was the first time Benveniste had seen this review, and its two pages of comments struck him as a joke. Some were simply stupid while others were now outdated. (Benveniste was to find that the reviewer was Walter Stewart, from the US National Institutes of Health, one of the men who were later to arrive at his laboratory as part of the inspection team assembled by Maddox.) However, for the record, Benveniste provided a three-page reply. With the review, Maddox asked for other explanations, which were also sent. Then, on June 15th 1988, Benveniste received another alarming fax which told him that the paper would be published with an editorial reservation only if he agreed to a team visiting his lab to monitor his work. Sick of the whole dilemma, but completely sure of his scientific work, Benveniste accepted.

Why should he have been alarmed? He imagined that the team would check the laboratory books and see that his experiment had been carried out properly. After all, that was the internationally recognised manner for dealing with such situations. In retrospect Benveniste asks how he "could have anticipated that, rather than examine the protocols and the record books, the team which was sent to France would ask to do the experiments themselves?" For that was exactly what the self-appointed investigators wished to do: replicate Benveniste's research in his laboratory.

If Jacques Benveniste had expected the investigators to be top-flight scientists, he was disappointed. James Randi was a leading member of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). An ex-performing magician, Randi had dedicated the last twenty years of his life to attacking the work of scientists in the area of psychic research. Although Benveniste did not know it at the time, Randi was an implacable opponent of homoeopathy.

The second member of the visitation was Walter Stewart, a man who worked in the National Institutes of Health, at Bethesda, the hub of the government-funded US medical research establishment. John Maddox described Stewart as a man "chiefly concerned. . . in studies of errors and inconsistencies in the scientific literature and with the subject of misconduct in science".

John Maddox, who was himself the third member of the team, was in no sense independent. Though held in high regard by the scientific community, he had for a long time been opposed to research which conflicted with the accepted scientific orthodoxy. From the early eighties he had been linked to the British offshoot of CSICOP, which was called CSICP. In 1983 he had called for the burning of a book by Dr Rupert Sheldrake which proposed the existence of a "morphogenetic memory field".

Benveniste was especially embarrassed by Maddox's presence in his laboratories. Here was a man whom he knew as an honourable scientist, acting in opposition to all scientific principles. Benveniste says of his visit:

"I had in my lab one of the men with the highest position in science, John Maddox. I was in the position of a man who meets the Pope and the Pope asks for his wallet; what was I to do? It is not easy to say no."

Having agreed to the visit, Benveniste turned over his laboratory, his records and his staff to assist the three strangers in their replication of his work. Unskilled in the particular area of work, unfamiliar with the lab and insistent upon much gratuitous ballyhoo, the visitors made a terrible mess. James Randi frequently made light of the proceedings by playing childish pranks.

"Randi introduced a bit of theatre into the proceedings when he wrote down the code that could identify the true samples from the controls, and put it in an envelope which he stuck to the ceiling. It was a ruse to see whether anyone would attempt to tamper with it during the night."

* * *

The research having been carried out, the results, which conflicted with those Benveniste arrived at, were published in Nature four weeks later. Headed "High Dilution Experiments a Delusion", the article claimed that Jacques Benveniste had been guilty of "delusion" and "hoaxing". The learned opinion of the team after three weeks' research, was that Benveniste had got it all wrong. "There is no substantial basis for the claim that anti-IgE at high dilution (by factors as great as 10 120) retains its biological effectiveness, and that the hypothesis that water can be imprinted with the memory of past solutes is as unnecessary as it is fanciful... The clams of Benveniste et al are not to be believed."

Nature gave considerable publicity to the report of their "independent" investigators. And the idea that Benveniste's work was fraudulent was picked up by a number of newspapers and journals. One of the British "quality" newspapers, the Guardian, followed the "independent investigation" with an article by Peter Newark which claimed that the original paper was "so bizarre that anyone could have spotted the problems... it was a piece of outrageous research. But we were not hoaxed".

By the end of the visit, Benveniste knew that Randi was a member of CSICOP and with a thought about previous cases, and the way in which CSICOPS's pranks had led to major career damage, he reacted angrily for the first time. His response in Nature was published alongside the results of the teams. In this article, Benveniste gave details of the absurd behaviour of the "investigators", while they had been in his lab: he concluded: "I now believe this kind of inquiry must immediately be stopped throughout the world. Salem witch-hunts or McCarthy-like prosecutions will kill science. Science flourishes only in freedom. We must not at any price let fear, blackmail, anonymous accusation, libel and deceit nest in our labs."

Benveniste's work on the biological activity of high dilution substances was not the first in this area. The number of fifty previous studies was quoted by Denis MacEoin in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. What Maddox and CSICOP were banking on was that the scientific establishment and the lay public would come to immediate and uneducated conclusions on the basis of their unscientific investigation.

* * *

For Benveniste the experience has been one of learning. In the last five years he has turned from being a relatively na´ve and perhaps academic scientist into someone desperately involved in the reality of the struggle between science and industrial vested interests. Even so, like other previous victims, Benveniste knows little more about the men who tried to destroy his career and his reputation than he did at the time.

As a consequence of the attack, he began gathering information about CSICOP and its connection to the European rationalist movement. (Rationalism is a philosophical current which grew out of the European revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Its arguments support reason, logic and scientific enquiry while opposing superstition, religion and magic.) Like others before him, he cannot understand how the original ideas of rationalism have become subverted, so that they now stand for censorship and irrationality. Benveniste considers himself a rationalist and has always been in sympathy with the ideas of the rationalist movement. He does not however agree with the way in which CSICOP and the rationalists express their views, "were it not for the conservative and authoritarian attitudes of CSICOP and the rationalists (in France, L'Union Rationaliste) I would belong to them."

The modern movement of European rationalism is evangelical in its support of multinational pharmaceutical companies, in particular, and for science, in the service of the military industrial complex in general. Benveniste sees now that CSICOP and the rationalists represent the older and most conservative of capitalism's science-based industries.

"Even if these people are defending industry rather than science, they are clearly stupid, because if we are right our discoveries will ultimately augment any possible intervention in the market by the pharmaceutical companies."

Benveniste puts the matter in a rudimentary economic context, posing it as the old problem for capitalism and conservative ideology: "it is the problem of the stage-coach manufacturers, are they going to turn into car manufacturers or not?" he points out that if a wide range of modern scientists are right in the evaluation of what he calls "the new science", then the companies which are now acting defensively will inevitably disappear, while others with more imagination will take their place.

Benveniste has found few platforms from which he has been able to express the injustice which he feels has been done to him. CSICOP and James Randi, on the other hand, have continued publicising the case of Jacques Benveniste's "fraudulent" work. On Wednesday 17th July 1991, Granada Television screened the first in a series of programmes hosted by James Randi, "psychic investigator". Designed to debunk and refute all things "non-scientific", the programmes lacked method of substance. Randi, who was himself presented by the press as a New Age character, was only a medium success, coming across as a humourless and rather wooden entertainer.

Some of the many interviews with Randi at the time of these programmes mentioned his accusations against Benveniste, while none of them attempted to put Benveniste's point of view. A book, authored by James Randi, and published to coincide with the programmes, mentioned on its first introductory page Randi's role in exposing scientific frauds, one case being that of Jacques Benveniste.

"The scientific world was understandably sceptical. John Maddox, editor of Nature, took the bold (sic) decision to publish Benveniste's results, on the understanding that he could later send in a three man team of "ghost busters", including Randi, to monitor the experiment."

When Jacques Benveniste's reputation was "attacked" in early 1988, some of his friends and many who were not his friends, pointed out that he was, after all, no stranger to controversy and might himself be partially to blame for his own victimisation. What no one was able to do in 1988, however, was to see the "attack" upon Benveniste as one of a number, rooted in a plan of campaign against immunologists and those working in allied fields. As they developed, these attacks could be seen to be focused upon those whose work touched upon research into and treatment for illnesses of the immune system.


mandato da Robin Good il Monday October 18 2004
aggiornato il Friday October 6 2006

URL of this article:


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Readers' Comments

Quite fascinating! I had never heard of this researcher but I have had asthma most of my life and mainstream medicine made me worse, in fact they gave me CFIDS. I now only use alternative medicine as I have developed environmental illness and I am too sick to work. Incredibly enough no doctor could diagnose me! but I was diagnosed by my disability lawyer when I told him of my problems. I cried with relief to find out there was a name for my illness. Later I was blessed to find a doctor who could treat me but I now hear from an online friend that this doctor is being persecuted. What is going on? (is it all just for money?) sigh, Alice

Posted by: Alice on April 28, 2005 05:43 AM


Quite fascinating! I had never heard of this researcher but I have had asthma most of my life and mainstream medicine made me worse, in fact they gave me CFIDS. I now only use alternative medicine as I have developed environmental illness and I am too sick to work. Incredibly enough no doctor could diagnose me! but I was diagnosed by my disability lawyer when I told him of my problems. I cried with relief to find out there was a name for my illness. Later I was blessed to find a doctor who could treat me but I now hear from an online friend that this doctor is being persecuted. What is going on? (is it all just for money?) sigh, Alice

Posted by: Parhatsathid on June 6, 2005 04:28 AM


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