JACQUES BENVENISTE12 March 1935–4th October 2004
21 December 2017 (online)
Jacques Benveniste was arguably the most controversial scientist of the last 50 years. His ‘crime’ was to claim to have found laboratory evidence for the efficacy of homeopathic dilutions. At its height, ‘l’affaire Benveniste’ involved some of the cream of the scientific establishment on both sides of the English Channel, but their treatment of the man sometimes smacked more of a Papal Inquisition than of sober scientific appraisal.
And yet Benveniste did not start out as a rebel—in fact, quite the reverse. He began his career as a hospital doctor, and by the age of 32 had become Clinic Head at the Faculté de Médecine in Paris. But he soon realised his real passion was research. After a stint researching cancer in France, he headed for the prestigious Scripps Clinic in California, where in 1970 he discovered Platelet Aggregating Factor—a major contribution to the science of allergy. He returned to France in 1973 and was immediately snapped up by INSERM, the French equivalent of Britain's Medical Research Council. While at INSERM, he patented an allergy test which involved staining degranulated basophils. In his 40s he was appointed head of the INSERM Laboratory of Immunology, Allergy and Inflammation. Internationally acclaimed, he was considered to be among France's ‘nobélisables’—tipped for a Nobel Prize.
However, in the early 1980s, the Hand of Fate struck, after Benveniste took on a new member of staff, Bernard Poitevin, a young medical doctor with a side-interest in homeopathy. ‘He asked me if he could try out some homeopathic preparations on my allergy test’, recalled Benveniste, ‘and I remember distinctly saying “OK, but you will be testing nothing but water’”.
But when Poitevin tested a homeopathically diluted allergen on basophils, they degranulated as if they had been exposed to the original full-strength allergen. Intrigued but cautious, Benveniste ordered a 2-year long series of retests, but the same results kept on recurring. Following accepted scientific practice, he then asked five other laboratories to try to replicate his findings. Once again, they obtained the same results. ‘Even after a billion billion dilutions, water was behaving as if it could somehow remember the molecules it had been originally exposed to,’ he concluded.
By 1988, recognising the importance of his ‘memory of water’ data, Benveniste felt they should be announced in the world's most important scientific publication—the British journal Nature. But it was a step into hubris that led to his undoing. For he didn’t reckon on the extreme scepticism of Nature's editor, physicist Dr (now Sir) John Maddox, nor that of his advisers, who ‘to a man, didn’t believe a word of it’. Maddox nevertheless agreed to publish the findings, on condition that a ‘committee’ could check out Benveniste's laboratory procedures. What followed is unprecedented in the annals of modern science. For instead of sending a committee of scientific experts, Maddox recruited two experts in trickery—a magician and a journalist who had written about scientific fraud. In July 1988, the three of them visited the INSERM laboratory. According to Benveniste, they ‘witnessed three successful experiments, and one unsuccessful one—and then concluded the whole thing was nonsense.’
The next edition of Nature headlined the trio's damning verdict: ‘High-Dilution experiments a delusion’. Benveniste's sense of ethical scientific behaviour was outraged. ‘It was a McCarthy-style witch-hunt’, he said. ‘They set out to kill the data, they were never out to seek the truth.’ The consequences for his career were savage. The French scientific establishment demanded his resignation for having disgraced his country; his lab was wound down and finally closed.
Nevertheless, for the last decade of his life, Benveniste doggedly extended his research way beyond his original findings. He experimentally confirmed both the importance of succussion (unsuccussed high dilutions are indeed ‘nothing but water’) and potentisation—although he found an uncharacteristic reduction in potency between the third and ninth dilutions. He also showed to his satisfaction first that the ‘memory of water’ is electromagnetic, and later that electromagnetic signals may in fact be the basis of all molecular communication—a direct challenge to the reigning theory that molecules communicate chemically.
In 1997 he set up a company called Digibio to develop his discoveries, and, only a month before his death, had signed a contract with a US company keen to develop his ‘digital biology’ patents—a ‘million dollar deal’, according to his son Laurent. Despite his age, he clearly had a lot of experimental science left in him. Twice married, Benveniste had five children. The complete opposite of the typical scientist, he had film-star good looks, a ready wit and bucket-loads of Gallic charm. He also had immense courage to pursue his research in the face of so much hostility from his peers. It must also be said that his strength of character sometimes made him an uncomfortable bed-fellow even among his natural allies in the world of homeopathy.
In a brief press release, INSERM, his former employers, called him ‘brilliant, provocative, and profoundly attached to the quest for knowledge’—a tribute in death to a man who had been so dishonoured in life.
Jacques Benveniste was the subject of a BBC documentary film made by Tony Edwards in 1994