In the summer of 1988, the science world was rocked by one of the most controversial research papers ever published in the highly-respected journal Nature.
According to a charismatic French scientist named Jacques Benveniste, pure water could somehow remember what it had previously contained.
Benveniste had started with a substance that caused an allergic reaction, he diluted it over and over again until there was nothing left except water, and then he observed that the pure water still managed to trigger an allergic reaction when it was added to living cells.
If the experiment was correct then it would mean rewriting the laws of physics and chemistry.
Moreover, the research would have a major impact on the credibility of homeopathy, because it is a form of alternative medicine that relies on remedies made by diluting the key curative ingredient over and over again until that ingredient has disappeared.
Even Benveniste was shocked by the implications of his own work.
“It was like shaking your car keys in the Seine at Paris and then discovering that water taken from the mouth of the river would start your car!”
John Maddox, editor of Nature, realised that Benveniste’s research would be controversial, so it was accompanied by a disclaimer similar to one that had been run when he published research about Uri Geller’s supposed supernatural powers.
It said: “Editorial reservation: Readers of this article may share the incredulity of the many referees … Nature has therefore arranged for independent investigators to observe repetitions of the experiments.”
The investigation team was led by Maddox himself, and he was joined by chemist Walter Stewart and James Randi, a magician, who had a reputation for debunking extraordinary claims.
Unfortunately for Benveniste, the investigators soon discovered that the results in his laboratory were unreliable.
The three of them went on to publish a report explaining how Benveniste’s assistants were being subconsciously selective in the way that they interpreted their data.
They said: “We believe that experimental data have been uncritically assessed and their imperfections inadequately reported.”
Benvensiste gradually moved out of academia as a result of the Nature debacle, but right up to his death in 2004 he maintained that his research was valid and that he was being ignored by a blinkered scientific establishment.
Twenty years after his research was published, perhaps now is the ideal time to asses his long-term impact on the debate surrounding ultra-dilute solutions and homeopathy.
Was he an unrecognized genius who was ahead of his time or was he a deluded scientist who failed to see that his research deeply flawed?
First of all, it is worth noting that there have been many attempts to reproduce Benveniste’s experiments – occasionally there are positive results, but they are neither consistent nor convincing, and in any case these are countered by several negative results.
For example, the BBC science series Horizon attempted to test Benveniste’s claims in 2002, and the conclusion was announced by Professor Martin Bland, of St George’s Hospital Medical School.
He said: “There’s absolutely no evidence at all to say that there is any difference between the solution that started off as pure water and the solution that started off with the histamine [an allergen].”
Similarly, Benveniste started a spin-off company called DigiBio, which claimed that water could not only have a memory, but that this memory could be digitized, transmitted via email and reintroduced into another sample of water, which in turn could have an impact on living cells.
The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) tested DigiBio’s claim and came to the following conclusion: “Our team found no replicable effects from digital signals.”
Nevertheless, Benveniste’s research continues to be very influential among many homeopaths, such as Alex Tournier, the founding director of the Homeopathy Research Institute.
He said: “Benveniste was a very inspiring and dedicated scientist, who at the very apogee of his career at the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research, was ready to put his reputation on the line to report a phenomenon he didn’t understand: homeopathic dilutions.
“Homeopathy is still not understood, however his efforts started a new era of rigorous scientific investigation of the field.”
Other homeopaths are convinced by Benveniste’s idea of digital homeopathy and are even willing to sell such remedies over the internet.
The vast majority of scientists would argue that, because there is still no convincing evidence that homeopathy is effective after 200 clinical trials, the idea that digitized homeopathy can help patients is fanciful.
But for $1,000 you could go online and buy yourself a digital homeopathy software kit and start treating yourself and others today.
Serious question marks remain over the Benveniste paper, but what is not in doubt is that its influence among homeopaths is still powerful and profound 30 years on.