Swiss pharmacologist Albert Hofmann first synthesized LSD on November 16, 1938, while trying to discover a new analeptic. Although Hofmann initially threw it away, he later said he had a strange feeling that there was something special about the chemical. Five years later, he synthesized the compound again, accidentally absorbing a tiny amount of LSD through his fingertips in the lab. He began to feel dizzy and a little strange, soon falling into an intoxicated, dreamlike state. As Hofmann closed his eyes, his mind’s eye was filled with a fantastic display of pictures and an intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After a couple of hours, the mysterious condition faded away.
Three days later, Hofmann, curious about the effects of LSD, decided to experiment on himself. He took a dose of 250 micrograms, believing it to be the smallest, and therefore safest, dose that could have an effect. He was wrong: that dose was in fact 20 micrograms. Hofmann felt a sudden and intense change in perception. He asked his lab assistant to take him home; as the war meant motorcars were banned, they went by bicycle. The psychedelic-addled scientist rode through the streets of Basel with massively dilated pupils, in a state of total panic. He began to believe his next door neighbour was a witch, then became more terrified at the thought that LSD had driven him permanently insane. Once his lab assistant had called a doctor, who saw nothing wrong with Hofmann, the terror began to fade. Hofmann wrote:
"... little by little I could begin to enjoy the unprecedented colors and plays of shapes that persisted behind my closed eyes. Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux ..."
That day, April 19th or ‘Bicycle Day’, was later celebrated by LSD users as the day of the first ever trip. It was also the day that Hofmann first understood both the potential of the drug. He called it “medicine for the soul”, spawning a movement of psychedelic therapists whose research still continues today. For decades later, Hofmann argued that LSD could help treat mental illness, as well as provide life-altering experiences. “I think that in human evolution it has never been as necessary to have this substance LSD.” said Hofmann. “It is just a tool to turn us into what we are supposed to be.”
Richard Nixon once called Dr. Timothy Leary "the most dangerous man in America". Originally a psychology professor at Harvard, Leary belonged to a second group of early LSD users, who wanted to spread the drug to the masses as quickly as possible. Like the protagonist in The Trip (1967), Timothy Leary in the mid 1950s was very unhappy with his life. His wife had committed suicide, leaving him alone with two children. He described himself as “an anonymous institutional employee who drove to work each morning in a long line of commuter cars and drove home each night and drank martinis ... like several million middle-class, liberal, intellectual robots”. However, in August 1960, Timothy Leary found his miracle cure in a rural Mexican mushroom, and was determined to share it with the world.
Leary began his investigation into psychedelic therapy by experimenting on willing students, first with mushrooms, then LSD, until parents complained that he was supplying drugs to their children. Although LSD was still legal, the university was not impressed. Leary, along with another psychologist, Richard Alpert, was eventually dismissed dismissed from Harvard in 1963. Leary and Alpert were determined to continue their research anyway, but their ‘experiments’ devolved into LSD parties. “We saw ourselves as anthropologists from the twenty-first century inhabiting a time module set somewhere in the Dark Ages of the 1960s. On this space colony we were attempting to create a new paganism and a new dedication to life as art.” wrote Leary.
“It produces aphrodisiac effects, does not increase creativity, has no lasting positive effect in treating alcoholics or criminals, does not produce a 'model psychosis', and does not generate immediate personality change. However, drug studies have confirmed that the powerful hallucinogenic effects of this drug can produce profound adverse reactions, such as acute panic reactions, psychotic crises, and " flashbacks", especially in users ill-equipped to deal with such trauma.”
The above is from a US government report on LSD. The substance became illegal in California on October 6, 1966 and the rest of the world followed soon after. By the late 1960s, the government considered LSD to be at best a failed experiment, and at worst a new plague.
Dr. Leary quickly become a notorious celebrity and LSD evangelist. He actively tried to counter the governments’ anti-LSD messages by coining sticky, pithy slogans like “turn on, tune in, drop out.” The Trip perfectly represented Leary’s vision, one that presented drugs as an escape from a dreary middle-class existence. At one point, a judge sentenced Leary to 30 years in prison for possession of half a marijuana cigarette. Although this decision was later reversed, Dr. Timothy Leary was still public enemy number one. Owsley Stanley, another prominent figure in the San Francisco counter-culture said:
“Leary was a fool. Drunk with "celebrity-hood" and his own ego, he became a media clown—and was arguably the single most damaging actor involved in the destruction of the evanescent social movement of the '60s. Tim, with his very public exhortations to the kids to "tune in, turn on and drop out", is the inspiration for all the current draconian US drug laws against psychedelics. He would not listen to any of us when we asked him to please cool it, he loved the limelight and relished his notoriety...”
Many psychedelic therapists and researchers blame Dr. Leary for the prohibition of LSD, and the decline of LSD research. Albert Hofmann himself was frustrated by both the 1960s counterculture, who he believed were misusing a powerful substance, and the government, who prohibited his invention. Maybe the mad scientist in this story isn’t the man who invented LSD, but the man who popularized it.
"Whenever I put the headsets on now," he'd continued, "I really do understand what I find there. When those kids sing about 'She loves you,' yeah, well, you know, she does, she's any number of people, all over the world, back through time, different colors, shapes, sizes, distances from death, but she loves. And the 'you' is everybody. And herself." - Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
Questions by Network Awesome writers and editors. We're a lot of fun - you can find us at apocalypse-themed parties, museums of science and industry, and snarky media-obsessed websites.