Jacques Benveniste was a French immunologist. In 1979 he published a well-known paper on the structure of platelet-activating factor and its relationship with histamine. He was head of INSERM’s Unit 200, directed at immunology, allergy and inflammation.
Benveniste was at the center of a major international controversy in 1988, when he published a paper in the prestigious scientific journal Nature describing the action of very high dilutions of anti-IgE antibody on the degranulation of human basophils, findings which seemed to support the concept of homeopathy.
Biologists were puzzled by Benveniste’s results, as only molecules of water, and no molecules of the original antibody, remained in these high dilutions. Benveniste concluded that the configuration of molecules in water was biologically active; a journalist coined the term water memory for this hypothesis. Much later, in the nineties, Benveniste also asserted that this “memory” could be digitized, transmitted, and reinserted into another sample of water, which would then contain the same active qualities as the first sample.
As a condition for publication, Nature asked for the results to be replicated by independent laboratories. The controversial paper published in Nature was eventually co-authored by four laboratories worldwide, in Canada, Italy, Israel, and in France. After the article was published, a follow-up investigation was set up by a team including physicist and Nature editor John Maddox, illusionist and well-known skeptic James Randi, as well as fraud expert Walter Stewart who had recently raised suspicion on the work of Nobel Laureate David Baltimore.
With the cooperation of Benveniste’s own team, the group failed to replicate the original results, and subsequent investigations did not support Benveniste’s findings either. Benveniste refused to retract his controversial article, and he explained (notably in letters to Nature) that the protocol used in these investigations was not identical to his own. However, his reputation was damaged, so he began to fund his research himself as his external sources of funding were withdrawn. In 1997, he founded the company DigiBio to “develop and commercialise applications of Digital Biology.”
Benveniste died in Paris at the age of 69 after heart surgery. He was married twice and had five children.