Dr. Hofmann’s “problem child” turns 70.
The CIA tried to use it as a weapon; self-appointed shamans claim that it brings people closer to God; psychiatrists argue for its therapeutic potential; and ordinary citizens have been dosing themselves for decades simply because they like the high. But 70 years afer its invention, we still have a lot to learn about LSD.
The last time I saw Dr. Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who invented LSD, he was keynoting to a packed house in a large auditorium in Basel, Switzerland. It was January 2006, and Hofmann had just turned 100 years old. A small, slightly stooped spry man with wisps of white hair, he stood onstage without a cane or walker and spoke to more than 1,000 people at the international symposium being held in his honor. Twentysomethings with multicolored dreadlocks, straitlaced research scientists, and psychedelic veterans of the hippie era listened with rapt attention as Hofmann talked about his infamous “problem child,” lysergic acid diethylamide 25, the hallucinogenic drug that blew minds and upset societal apple carts when it catalyzed the countercultural rebellion of the 1960s.
“As I look at you today,” Hofmann told his audience, “I see you are not my problem child. You are my prodigy.”
Thank you, Dr. Hofmann. From problem child to prodigy – what a long, strange trip it’s been.
As a young man, Hofmann worked for Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in Basel, where he developed medicinal compounds from plant sources. LSD was the 25th in a series of ergot (rye fungus) derivatives Hofmann had concocted; hence the designation LSD- 25. But preliminary studies on lab animals didn’t prove significant, and Sandoz scientists soon lost interest in the drug. LSD sat on a shelf until that fateful afternoon of April 16, 1943, when Hofmann inadvertently absorbed a tiny amount of it through his fingertips and went spiraling through the cosmos. Three days later, he bicycled into eternity after taking 250 micrograms, thinking that such a dose was too small to have an effect.
LSD is odorless, colorless, tasteless, and extremely powerful – properties that stoked the interest of American spies and military strategists during the early years of the Cold War. It was problematic from the get-go. The fledgling Central Intelligence Agency enthusiastically embraced LSD as a “potential new agent for unconventional warfare.” In the 1950s, CIA operatives actually thought that LSD would revolutionize the cloak-and-dagger trade.
The CIA’s space cowboys dropped acid to figure out how to harness the hallucinogen for espionage purposes. “We felt that a firsthand knowledge of the subjective effects of these drugs [was] important to those of us who were involved in the program,” a CIA officer later told congressional investigators. Immersed in “a never-never land of ‘eyes only’ memos and unceasing experimentation,” as a once-classified CIA document put it, US interrogators administered surreptitious doses of LSD to disorient people, undermine their will to resist, and elicit information from uncooperative subjects.
US Army brass were equally smitten by the notion of using LSD to wage psychochemical warfare – spray a cloud of “madness gas” over a big city and you could incapacitate the entire population without killing anyone. Or so they imagined. LSD conjured the prospect of a new kind of weapon that would supposedly usher in an era of “war without death.” The US Army Chemical Corps gave LSD to hundreds of American soldiers to assess the drug’s disruptive impact on military drills and war games.
Around the same time, many reputable psychiatrists began touting LSD as a promising therapeutic adjunct, a novel healing modality that could help neurotic patients confront and overcome their hang-ups. LSD was well regarded among scientists for its therapeutic potential long before it gained a reputation for recreational abuse. They saw LSD as a potent tool to study how the mind works, a long-awaited chemical key for unlocking the mysteries of brain chemistry and mental illness. A tiny dose of LSD seemed to have an uncanny ability to make the unconscious conscious, to illuminate long-hidden sources of stress by bringing to the surface whatever might be lurking in the mental depths; hence the word psychedelic, which literally means “mind-manifesting.”
During the 1960s, the therapeutic potential of LSD was projected onto a broad social landscape. Timothy Leary and others trumpeted acid as a cure-all for a sick society, a species catalyst capable of catapulting humanity to the next evolutionary level. The LSD story morphed into a “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tale as the drug spilled out of the laboratories of the state and into the streets of America and elsewhere. And now that the genie was out of the bottle, it was impossible for the CIA or anyone else to stuff it back in.
Every group that got involved with LSD before it was banned by the US government in 1967 – the CIA, the military, the shrinks, the ’60s rebels – swooned over the psychedelic. These LSD enthusiasts, representing disparate segments of society, had different ideas about acid and how it could be used to advance their agendas. But they shared something in common: They all saw LSD as the key to the big breakthrough for their respective interests. In each case, the encounter with LSD triggered an envisioning of new possibilities. Whether or not these possibilities would ever be realized is another matter, but the opening, the awakened sense of potential, was real.
For some intrepid trippers, the dazzling immediacy and experiential density of LSD are conducive to deep insight and self-discovery, those seminal lightbulb moments that alter mental constructs and change how we look at things. The phrase “high on LSD” implies rising above the ordinary and achieving an overarching, big-picture view, a visionary epiphany. What was once unimagined suddenly becomes saturated with possibility.
“LSD opened my eyes,” said Hofmann. But he didn’t consult the psychedelic oracle very often: Over the years, he ingested LSD and psilocybin less than a dozen times. Hofmann lamented the fact that many people dropped acid casually and for mere entertainment. “Those who use it frequently don’t understand LSD. They haven’t gotten the message of LSD,” Hofmann told me when I visited him and Anita, his wife of 67 years, at their scenic mountaintop home near Basel in 2002.
It was a beautiful spring day. Hofmann greeted me at his front door and immediately suggested that we take a walk outside. “Better to see first, then talk,” he asserted. He led me along a wooded path that straddled a sloping meadow festooned with wildflowers. I stopped and stared in awe at the breathtaking panorama. I could see Alsace and the Black Forest in the valley below; the Bavarian Alps loomed in the distance. “This is not an acid dream,” Hofmann remarked, pointing to the picturesque landscape.
Hofmann was both a scientist and a nature mystic. He was also a collector. An amateur entomologist, he collected butterflies and rare insects. The most beautiful specimens were photographed, and some of these images were published in a splendid little volume, Lob des Schauens [In Praise of Seeing], which he gifted to his friends and associates.
After our outdoor stroll, Hofmann gave me a tour of his library, noting books that were autographed by his literary hero, Ernst Jünger, the conservative revolutionary incendiary who coined the word psychonaut. There were also botanical reference guides and titles on arcane subjects, such as hashish tales from the Arab world.
Hofmann showed me a first edition of Island, Aldous Huxley’s last novel, about a short-lived psychedelic utopia. The book had been inscribed by Huxley: “To the inventor of the moksha medicine.” (Moksha is the Sanskrit word for liberation from the cycle of suffering, death and rebirth.) Aldous and his wife Laura were occasional houseguests. “That’s where Laura Huxley demonstrated her yoga postures,” Hofmann recalled, gesturing toward the rug in the den.
We talked more about literature. Hofmann surmised that Hermann Hesse – the Nobel Prize–winning author of novels like Steppenwolf, with its mind-bending “Magic Theater” episode – was among the handful of European intellectuals and artists who’d experimented with mescaline in the 1930s. Hofmann also admired the drug writings of Walter Benjamin, the Jewish philosopher and literary critic who took his own life after fleeing Nazi Germany.
The conversation shifted to climate change, environmental pollution, and the relentless corporate defilement of the natural world, topics of great concern to Hofmann. He criticized the US government for obstructing efforts to mitigate global warming and social injustice. “The whole world is against the United States. Why aren’t American citizens outraged at their country’s militaristic policies?” he asked.
I told him that independent policy critics are typically marginalized by the mainstream media in the US, and that consequently many Americans are clueless about current events. But we agreed there were some hopeful signs, particularly with respect to the renewed scientific inquiry into psychedelic drugs. Nearly 700 peer-reviewed studies with LSD and other hallucinogens had been conducted prior to 1972; for the next 18 years, however, no human studies with LSD were permitted. The research blockade began to abate in the 1990s, and a handful of investigators in the United States and elsewhere got the green light to experiment with LSD and psilocybin as a treatment for depression, cluster headaches, PTSD, and to help terminally ill individuals come to terms with death.
Humans have ingested hallucinogenic substances since time immemorial, and extensive underground experimentation will surely persist despite the War on Drugs and the illegal status of LSD. Political constraints are such that efforts to validate psychedelics through medical studies comprise the path of least resistance for LSD advocates. Seventy years after Dr. Hofmann discovered the effects of LSD, scientists are using the drug as a tool to unravel the mysteries of the human brain. For example, a team of Chinese and American scientists has shown that ergotamine, a biochemical precursor of LSD, inhibits migraines by binding to the 5-HT1B serotonin receptor. And Hungarian researchers have linked clinical depression to mutations in a gene that encodes another LSD-sensitive serotonin receptor.
Albert Hofmann died on his beloved mountaintop in 2008, at 102 years of age. He was a rare soul, a man of exceptional dignity. How lucky we are that he, of all people, chanced upon LSD when he did. Or did LSD choose him, as Hofmann himself mused?
Martin A. Lee is the author of several books, including Acid Dreams and, most recently, Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana – Medical, Recreational and Scientific (smokesignalsthebook.com). For more information and regular updates, follow “Smoke Signals – the Book” on Facebook.