“I think water is a conductor, water has a memory, we know that.” This summer, the video of Christine and the Queens dissertation, in an interview with Mehdi Maïzi, on her relationship with water entertained social networks. “I think, I’m telling you eh, that I was surely a sailor”, assures the singer (now gendered in the masculine), before calling to “get back to the water, to talk to the water, to love water”. But this surreal outing has above all confirmed the durability, in popular culture, of one of the great sea serpents of pseudoscience: the memory of water.
Chance of the calendar, the journalist Patrick Cohen returns, in his excellent documentary Mystifications (broadcast this evening on France 5), on a scientific controversy that caused a lot of ink to flow in France in the middle of the Mitterrand years. On June 30, 1988, The world announcement front page “a French discovery that could upset the foundations of physics”. According to journalists Franck Nouchi and Jean-Yves Nau, Doctor Jacques Benveniste and his team have provided proof “that specific biological information can be transmitted by water that is a priori pure; or that water is capable of preserve the ‘memory’ of biologically active molecules that have been in contact with it but which, following repeated dilutions, have ended up disappearing”. For the evening daily, it is “the essential principles on which contemporary chemistry, physics and biology are built” that are upset, which “can only give nightmares to scientists around the world”. In a text accompanying the article, Jacques Benveniste claims that this “change in way of thinking is no less great than when we went with the Earth from flatness to roundness”. Pushing the cork very far, he goes so far as to wonder if we will not be able “from the information passing under the Pont-Neuf, to reconstitute a Diplodocus”.
This sensationalist announcement from World shortly preceded the publication, in the prestigious journal Natureof an article by Jacques Benveniste and his team entitled “The degranulation of human basophils induced by very high dilutions of an anti-IgE antiserum”. The researcher claims to have succeeded in activating a blood cell with a solution of water containing a completely diluted antibody. In other words, the biological information would be preserved in the water. A rare fact, the article is accompanied by an editorial by the director of Nature, John Maddox, who expressed his skepticism and announced that a commission of inquiry had been sent to the Clamart laboratory. This further reinforces the controversy, since we find there, alongside John Maddox and Walter Stewart, a specialist in scientific fraud, an illusionist, James Randi, who had unmasked the twister of teaspoons Uri Geller. From July 28, Nature publishes a disclaimer, “high dilutions, an illusion”, concluding that the experiment is in no way reproducible. The revolution announced by The world, who took up the cause of Benveniste, quickly pschitt. Science journalism has hit rock bottom.
Initially, Jacques Benveniste was not a charlatan. In 1971, the immunologist discovered a blood platelet activating factor, PAF-acether, which earned him a silver medal from the CNRS. He was adviser to the Minister of Research Jean-Pierre Chevènement from 1981 to 1983. But it was also in the early 1980s that Benveniste became interested in the experiments of one of his students, the homeopath doctor Bernard Poitevin. This one tries to prove the effects of products with “high dilutions”, and thus to justify the bases of homeopathy. Remember that a homeopathic “remedy” is obtained by repeatedly diluting what this discipline considers to be the active principle of the remedy. “30 CH” means for example that it has been diluted thirty times to one hundredth. To give an order of magnitude, this would represent one liter of solution in… the entire Milky Way galaxy. How could a product drowned in such proportions that nothing remains according to classical chemistry could have an effect? We therefore understand better why the “memory of water”, highlighting a molecular effect in the very absence of the molecule, has aroused enthusiasm among supporters of homeopathy, as among those of biodynamics who also makes homeopathic dilutions.
In May 1988, Benveniste presented his results at the National Congress of Homeopathy in Strasbourg. He adopts a deliberately esoteric tone, speaking of “phantom molecules”, “molecular imprints” of water that has preserved the “memory” of the substances with which it has been in contact. That’s when Release title: “Homeopathy: Pr J. Benveniste verifies the memory of water”. The formula could only mark the spirits.
After this brief moment of media glory, Jacques Benveniste lost all credibility in the scientific world, especially since we learned that his laboratory had been financed since 1982 by the Laboratoires homéopathiques de France and by Boiron (the two merged in 1988). In 1989, Inserm came out in favor of a “temporary non-renewal” of Benveniste to his post in unit 200. This was definitively closed a few years later.
Drafted by Pr Montagnier
Having subsequently abandoned water for an equally fanciful “digital biology”, Benveniste died in 2004. The worldonce again, pays homage to the pariah, claiming that “his research made more than waves in the ever choppy waters of scientific truth”. It is another renowned scientist, having also started a shipwreck in the eyes of his peers, who will fish out the memory of the water: Luc Montagnier. The co-discoverer of the AIDS virus, Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2008, is passionate about the work of Benveniste, whom he considers a “Galilee of modern times”, and joins forces with one of his former collaborators, Jamel Aissa. According to Montagnier, certain DNA of viruses or bacteria would emit low frequency electromagnetic waves of which the water would keep “traces”. Result: with a method of detecting these electromagnetic signals, it would be possible to detect and treat many ailments.
An apological documentary, We have found the memory of water, will even be broadcast in 2014 on… France 5 (we will much prefer that of Patrick Cohen). Professor Montagnier performs there in front of the camera an experiment supposed to teleport DNA. Figurehead of the antivaxes having multiplied eccentric theses on autism, Lyme disease or even AIDS (he estimated that a good natural immunity protected from HIV…), Luc Montagnier died in 2022. But the memory of the water seems unsinkable, as it serves as a lifeline for pseudoscientific disciplines, while stimulating the imagination of aquatic spirits like that of Christine and the Queens.