In recent years Wilhelm Reich, the psychiatrist and biophysicist, has become a cult figure in the class with Che Guevara, J.R.R. Tolkien and Herman Hesse. Indeed, because he died in an American penitentiary (and was hounded there, as his followers believe, by the Federal Drug Administration), he has become more: a martyr. These two biographies, one by Colin Wilson, an English writer of science fiction, and the other by W. Edward Mann and Edward Hoffman, both American psychologists, are as a result both timely and provocative.

"The Man Who Dreamed of Tomorrow," the book by the psychologists, deals very little with his personal life, and is almost completely worshipful, concentrating on his work and calling him "a passionate and persecuted thinker." The one by Colin Wilson is more balanced, for Wilson explores his life fully, weighs his faults against his scientific discoveries and comes up with the assessment of him as "a misunderstood genius but not a persecuted genius. If he was persecuted at all," says Wilson, "it was . . . because of a determined refusal to acquire any self-discipline or self-knowledge." It was this refusal that pushed him to the edge of maddness; he died feeling both omnipotent and misunderstood.

Reich was born in Austria in 1897. His father, who had abandoned Judaism and given him a secular education, was a wealthy farmer who sold beef to the Austrian government. A dominant and bad-tempered man, he ruled his farm despotically and expected total obedience from everyone. Wilhelm undoubtedly absorbed some of his domiance and bad temper, and when he was a boy of 13 added to them a feeling of omnipotence when he discovered that his formerly sweet, submissive mother was having an affair with his tutor and betrayed her to his father. The result of this betrayal were such a storm of jealous patriarchal rage that his mother, forced time and again to beg forgiveness on her knees, yet denied it and condemned as utterly evil, became so despairing she committed suicide. After this his father, discovering belatedly how much he missed her, lost his own will to live. Reich never expressed guilt over this essential destruction of both his parents. All his days everything he did was right, and anyone who disagreed with him was to be fought with, as suffering from what he called "emotional plague."

He fought with Freud, whom he had once idealized, when he refused to change his mind, as Freud did, about declaring the libido as being the central life force.

He fought with the Communist party, of which for a time he was a member in Germany, when he decided, upon reflection, that economic matters were of little importance; that with complete sexual freedom and universal "good orgasms" allworld problems would be solved.

He fought with the Norwegians over the same sexual issues when he lived in Scandinavia. A good sex life and good orgasms were a sure guarantee of a fulfilling and happy life, he preached to the then-conservative Norwegians, even though the facts were in time to refute him. With the freest sex life in the world, the best elementary school sex education and the most solid support for sexually active teen-agers, says Wilson, Sweden and Norway have been found to have the highest incidence of mental disease in the world.

He fought with the American government when he moved to Maine, founded an institute called Orgonon and devised a box about half the size of a telephone booth called an "orgone accumulator." In this box, he said, orgones, his new name for the basic life-giving forces, were accumulated. Reich's theory was that if his patients sat in it and absorbed orgones, they would be cured of all kinds of ailments, including on occasion even cancer. The FDA could not enjoin him from experimenting, but they could and did enjoin him from shipping the box across state lines because, as they insisted, it had no proven value. He wrote a fiery letter to the judge sitting on the case and told him that "scientific experiments were outside the law." He even threatened to flood the whole eastern United States with enough orgone-energy to cause thunderstorms if the judge did not remove the injunction, which the judge, understandably angered, did not. Whereupon Reich continued to have the box shipped, landing him in jail.

Still, difficult though he was, Reich was a hard-working and in some ways a brilliant man. He wrote 20 books -- "Character Analysis" and "The Function of the Orgasm" are the best known -- and some 400 articles on a wide variety of innovative subjects. Many therapists today are impressed by his suggestions given in "Character Analysis" and start treatment by carefully observing a patient's body language, making note of how he walks, sits, stares or drops his eyes, twitches or remains still. And we now recognize as pioneering his suggestions that mothers be united with their babies as soon as possible after birth, that sexually active teen-agers be given instructions in birth control, and that all women be granted abortion on demand.

He died in a federal prison in 1956 while serving a two-year sentence for defying the court order. His incarceration had not been harsh. He visited regularly with the prison doctors, worked on a new book and had complete access to the prison library. Death came quietly in his sleep from a heart attack only a few days before he would have been eligible for parole. But his followers were so sure he had been murdered they demanded an autopsy to see if evidence of poison could be found, and when it was not they went so far as to try to keep anyone who had ever criticized him from attending his funeral. It all left him, if not a persecuted figure, certainly a controversial one, with many people calling him a central figure for our age.