Jacques Benveniste

Acclaimed immunologist whose career was marred by the 'memory of water' controversy
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The Independent Online

Jacques Benveniste, doctor and immunologist: born Paris 12 March 1935; Chef de Clinique, Faculté de Médecine, Paris 1967-69; scientist, Inserm 1973-93, Directeur de Recherche 1980-90; founder, Digibio 1997; twice married (five children); died Paris 4 October 2004.

Jacques Benveniste was arguably the most controversial scientist of the last 50 years. His "crime" was the discovery of a mechanism for homeopathy, the popular but currently inexplicable alternative medical therapy. At its height, "l'affaire Benveniste" involved the cream of the scientific establishment on both sides of the Channel, but their treatment of Benveniste himself 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. A brilliant young research immunologist, he was responsible for a string of scientific advances, including the patenting of an innovative allergy test. In his forties he was appointed a Research Director at Inserm (the Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale), the French equivalent of the Medical Research Council, heading his own state-funded Laboratory of Allergy and Immunology. Internationally acclaimed, he was considered to be among France's "nobélisables" - tipped for a Nobel Prize.

In the early 1980s, Benveniste took on a new member of staff - 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", Benveniste recalled, "and I remember distinctly saying 'OK, but all you will be testing is water'".

Homeopathy is indeed, according to conventional medical science, nothing but water. Derived mostly from plants, homeopathic remedies are prepared by adding water to the original herb in a series of dilution stages, each one interspersed by vigorous shaking of the mixture.

According to homeopathic theory, this enables the final remedy to retain the medicinal value of the original herb, while eliminating its side-effects. Although homeopathic therapy has some clinical evidence to support it, medical science as a whole has found it impossible to accept - principally because the preparation process dilutes the herbal mixture in so much water that not a single molecule of the starting material can possibly survive.

But when Benveniste's staff member tried a homeopathically diluted allergen on his allergy test, the test showed positive - it produced an allergic response as powerful as the original full-strength allergen. Intrigued but cautious, Benveniste ordered a two-year long series of retests, but the same results kept on recurring. "I was flabbergasted," he said. "My allergy test is highly reliable and yet it was apparently responding to mere water; I felt I was setting foot into an unknown world." Following accepted scientific practice, he then asked five other laboratories to try to replicate his findings. Once again, they obtained the same astonishing results. "Even after more than a billion-fold dilution, water was behaving as if it could 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 he didn't reckon on the extreme scepticism of Nature's editor, the 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. Experimental failures are common in biology, but being non-experts they were ignorant of that. They also tried to repeat the experiment themselves - something unheard of in science - and of course it too failed.

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 (whom he later dubbed the "Ayatollahs of science") demanded his resignation for having disgraced his country, and 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, taking him even deeper into scientific heresy. Scraping together what funds he could and setting up the company Digibio in 1997 to support his experiments, he 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.

To date, since the notorious Nature publications in 1988, seven laboratories have attempted to repeat Benveniste's original experiments. Five of them have done so successfully, but two have failed. Predictably, it is the failures that have received the most publicity.

Benveniste had film-star good looks, a dry wit and bucket-loads of Gallic charm. He also had immense courage. "Many of my colleagues advised me: 'Forget about this research data; put it away in a drawer, and keep your job'," he admitted.

But as a scientist, it was my duty to explore the truth without fear of the consequences. If a scientist like me can be branded as a heretic, it's because modern science has adopted a quasi-religious set of dogmas. Can we not finally rid science of Galileo-style prosecution and replace it with genuine scientific debate?

At the time of his death, Benveniste had just signed a contract with a US company keen to develop one of his "digital biology" patents.

Was Benveniste slightly unhinged, which is the whispered view of the world of science, or the victim of an enraged scientific orthodoxy? Only the future will tell, and that will depend in part on how many scientists are brave enough to follow his path into heresy. In a brief press release this week, Inserm, his former employers, called him "brilliant, provocative, and profoundly attached to the quest for knowledge".

Tony Edwards