Jacques Benveniste: a personal tribute
22 December 2017 (online)
Dr Jacques Benveniste, an immunologist known for his discovery of platelet activating factor (PAF), but who became infamous, at the end of the 1980s, for the theory of the “memory of water”, died in Paris on 3rd October 2004.
When a man passes away, our feelings are of personal loss and understanding of his family's sorrow. What is more, when this man has left his mark on our history, in this case a significant episode of homeopathic research, paying homage to his memory means also telling the truth about the facts known to me, especially when those facts have been contested. Therefore the few lines which follows express especially three feelings: gratitude for the scientist and the “boss” of the department, friendship for the man, respect for the facts.
I first met Jacques Benveniste in July 1979 at the national centre of INSERM, the French national medical research organisation. I had finished my Diploma in Immunology (DEA) at the Institut Pasteur and was looking for a post in a laboratory for my doctoral thesis. At the same time, I wanted continue my experiments on high dilutions, which I had begun almost in secret while studying for the DEA. Jacques Benveniste had a reputation of being a very good scientist because of his work on PAF done in the USA.
Back in France, he had just been nominated head of unit 200 of INSERM. A unit specialising in the immuno-pharmacology of allergy and inflammation, unit U 200 was to become famous. He was also known for his scientific originality, which had led him to experiment with the “quail's egg” effect on human basophil degranulation.
He had been also an excellent doctor, Head of Department in a Paris hospital. He had actively taken part in the “events” of May 1968 protesting against the organisation of the French medical system, and politically engaged with the French socialist party.
It was because of his qualities of rigour and scientific originality that I contacted him. Colleagues had told me that there was some chance that he might agree to work on homeopathy. I started work on the effect of PAF on the production of free radicals, avoiding at first talking to him about homeopathy. In 1980–1981 favourable circumstances allowed me to do this: I was in contact with the medical director of Laboratoires Homéopathiques de France (LHF), Dr Michel Aubin, who wanted to develop a research programme on homeopathy. And Benveniste had been nominated advisor to the new socialist minister of research, M Chevènement. After a delay due to Benveniste's first heart attack, an agreement with LHF was signed in 1983. During this programme, we achieved three publications in scientific journals, two about the modulating effect of Apis mellifica and Lung histamine on the degranulation of basophils, the other about the action of Silica. Benveniste supervised the work and was an author of these publications. He thus was able to observe the action of these high dilutions in which at first he didn’t believe. The subject received media attention (Le Monde in particular) and began to interest politicians (The Minister of Health created a scientific commission on homeopathy, GRECHO, in 1985, in which Benveniste and I took part).
Benveniste then took a momentous decision; he wanted to publish, independently of homeopathic interests, an article on high dilutions in a very prestigious journal like Nature or Science, in order to prove the phenomenon once and for all. He also, in a way, wanted to get his own back, because he had been disappointed that the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1982 was awarded for discoveries concerning prostaglandins and related biologically active substances, but PAF had been forgotten. This decision of Benveniste was the beginning of the “Nature Affair” to which I will return.
Throughout these years, Jacques Benveniste was an excellent scientific “boss”, very precise and very demanding as far as the editing of articles was concerned. Yet he could be very hard on some good scientific collaborators and the truth obliges me to say that he was not always fair. He could also be very generous: for instance, when invited to a scientific meeting in Bermuda, he invited Elisabeth Davenas and me to come with him. At this meeting were present Nobel Prize winners including Sir John Eccles (Medicine 1963); Brian Josephson (Physics, 1973) and well known scientists like David Bohm.
In his personal life, he was a kind, generous and brilliant man. He had many passions: politics, motor racing and sailing. He had a catamaran in Brittany; he invited me to accompany him and I have very pleasant memories of those times.
The important events of his professional life were his work on the PAF, and the Nature publication of 1988, followed by the memory of water “affair”. Too much has been written about this affair. It should have been limited at first to giving more details on the conditions in which the published results could be reproduced. As I was a signatory to the Nature article and to the following article on the checking of these results required by INSERM, I will only underline here three points which were at the centre of the very difficult course followed by Jacques Benveniste and others subsequently.
The first point concerns Nature's inspection to verify the results after the publication of the article. It was an absurd decision, which should have been refused. In 1997, John Maddox wrote in the journal La Recherche that Benveniste's repeated calls for publication had made him loose his patience. This is not a reason to organise such an absurd inquiry. The second point concerns the difficulty there was and there still is, in reproducing the results obtained in Israel in 1987. The third point concerns the fact that only Elisabeth Davenas was able to reproduce the phenomenon of activation by high dilutions of anti-IgE in 1989 and 1990. These technical points, which are the crux of the matter, have not been sufficiently taken into account. This lack of scientific analysis gave rise to a foolish controversy opposing those who were convinced it was a brilliant discovery and those who only saw a fraud. I can testify that there was no fraud. This sad controversy affected us greatly, Benveniste, Davenas and me. The essential point remains, in my opinion, the very individual character of the activation of basophils and the need to identify the donors.
In spite of this Jacques continued his fight in scientific research and in the media. I attempted to work scientifically with him on high dilution activity him as much as I could. Having started the co-operation with LHF and Michel Aubin, I did everything to continue the work after the 1988 merger of LHF with Boiron. When I had to tell to Jacques Benveniste in 1990, that Boiron was going to cancel the contract, he was very hurt. Subsequently he worked on the electronic transfer of biological information, in cooperation with Citro. Personally, I continued to work to reproduce the inhibitory effect of Apis mellifica on basophil activation measured by flow cytometry and with physicists about transfer of biological information. I was unable to continue because in 1997 I was made redundant following a difference of opinion with Boiron.
Afterwards I rarely saw Jacques. I knew he was looking for money to develop his projects. The last time we met was in 2000 in Brazil at SINAPIH, an international multidisciplinary congress on homeopathy. We had a project to cooperate again, but shortly afterwards came the sad episode of the scientific protocol of the BBC (Horizon programme, November 2002). I was contacted by the BBC, but, after reading the protocol, refused to take part. Benveniste felt betrayed by those who had been contacted by the BBC. I did not betray him. But this suffering, these accumulated stresses, certainly contributed to his heart problems.
He was a great scientist. I am only a doctor with a scientific background, but having started homeopathic research in his laboratory, I know what a difficult fight he had on high dilutions. Perhaps it was necessary to ensure the scientific bases of this subject before starting those of electronic transfer of biological information. Jacques Benveniste led a scientific “battle” which was not principally that of homeopathy. It was his own, that of scientific innovation certainly, also for recognition by the scientific establishment. He thus found himself confronted with Nobel Prize winners such as François Jacob (Medicine, 1965), on the subject of the dogmas of molecular biology and with Georges Charpak (Physics, 1992) about electronic transfer of biological information.
I don’t doubt that the future will confirm at least part of the innovative scientific work for which Jacques Benveniste, with others, worked and fought. Such fights are never lost. Alas, we have lost a very brave and intelligent man. For his family and his friends, it's a tragic loss.