Jacques Benveniste

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: (Published 25 November 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:1290

Immunologist who caused controversy by claiming to have proved the principle of homoeopathy

No one familiar with the career of Dr Jacques Benveniste will be at a loss to understand why the company founded to support his research should have marked his death with a press release quoting the great French physiologist Claude Bernard: “When the fact that we come up against does not agree with the predominant theory that we have accepted, we must take the fact and abandon the theory.” The facts that Benveniste claimed to have uncovered altered the course of his life. Whether his change of direction was justified—indeed whether the facts really were as he believed them to be—generated a debate that intrigued biomedical scientists for several months during the late 1980s.

At that time Benveniste was head of allergy and inflammation immunology at the French biomedical research agency INSERM (Institut de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale). The saga began when a member of his staff put a homoeopathically diluted remedy through an allergy test devised by Benveniste, and obtained a positive result. Greatly puzzled, Benveniste and his collaborators began experimenting.

Their results, published in Nature in 1988, created an uproar (Nature 1988;333: 816-8). The test itself uses polymorphonuclear basophils. When IgE antibodies on their surfaces are exposed to anti-IgE antibodies they degranulate, releasing histamine. The INSERM researchers claimed to show that the effect could be detected with anti-IgE diluted to 1x10120. At a dilution of just 1x1014 any one assay might be expected to contain no more than a single molecule of IgE. Yet Benveniste was detecting degranulation when, by common consent, most assays would have none at all.

Significantly, the effect was only apparent if the successive dilutions were accompanied by vigorous agitation. This, the authors suggested, had induced “a sub-molecular organization of water”: a memory, as it was generally described.

Nature had deep doubts about this apparent proof of the principle of homoeopathy, and expressed them in an “Editorial reservation” printed at the end of the paper: “Readers of this article may share the incredulity of the many referees who have read it… With the kind collaboration of Professor Benveniste, Nature has therefore arranged for independent investigators to observe repetitions of the experiments.”

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Whether this unusual approach demonstrated admirable fairness by Nature's staff, or a discreditable attempt to have their cake and eat it, Benveniste himself was deeply upset by the conduct of the investigation. Famously, the team comprised Nature's then editor, John Maddox, and two Americans: Walter Stewart, a scientist skilled at exposing scientific fraud, and the magician James Randi.

Their report—one of the most unusual ever published in that journal—pulled no punches (Nature 1988; 334: 287-90). Its opening paragraph described Benveniste's experiments as “statistically ill-controlled, from which no effort has been made to exclude systematic error, including observer bias, and whose interpretation has been clouded by the exclusion of measurements in conflict with the claim that anti-IgE at ‘high dilution’ will degranulate basophils. The phenomenon described is not reproducible…”

The four pages of revelation and criticism were spiced with accounts of sloppy lab procedure, enriched with details of the team's fraud-busting techniques (videorecording of procedures; taping sealed experimental codes to the laboratory ceiling), and iced with dollops of pure journalism.

Maddox offered not to publish their conclusions if Benveniste withdrew the paper. Benveniste did not; Maddox published. In a bitterly angry riposte Benveniste described the investigation as a mockery of scientific inquiry, and compared it to a Salem witch hunt or a McCarthyite prosecution.

Benveniste earned a reprimand from INSERM but survived a 1990 evaluation of his lab's work on condition that he stop experimenting with high dilutions. The lab failed a subsequent assessment in 1994, and was closed.

Undaunted, Benveniste went on to develop what he called “digital biology”: the science and technology of the molecular information stored by water (its “memory”). This information, he claimed, could be transmitted from one molecule to another by electromagnetic signals. 1997 saw the advent of DigiBio, a company created to develop and exploit digital biology commercially.

Hailed by some homoeopaths as the messiah bringing scientific respectability, Benveniste continued to have many loyal supporters. The scientific community in general dismissed him as honest but self-deluding. He became the first person to win two of the Ig Nobel prizes awarded annually by the Harvard-based journal Annals of Improbable Research. One was for the alleged memory of water, the other for his claim to be able to transmit such memories via the internet.

All this hoopla eclipsed the earlier and less troubled phase of Benveniste's career. Trained in Paris he qualified in 1960 and practised medicine in that city before taking a research job in cancer. After three years at the Scripps Clinic in California he returned to France and joined INSERM in 1980 as head of its allergy unit. He became a senior research director in 1984, and emeritus research director in 2002. His reputation as an orthodox researcher derives from his 1970 discovery of platelet activating factor (PAF).

Water may have no memory, but science does. L'affaire Benveniste, and its eponymous progenitor, will not be forgotten.

Jacques Benveniste, French immunologist (b Paris 1935; q Paris 1960), died in Paris on 3 October 2004 following heart surgery.

[Geoff Watts]