The Origin of LSD and it's Effect on American Culture

Researcher "trips" over new discovery

On the sixteenth of April, 1943, Dr. Albert Hofmann, a Chemist at Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland, was conducting experiments of a compound as part of his pharmaceutical research for the treatment of a variety of afflictions, including psychosis.

Evidently absorbing traces of the compound through his fingertips, Hofmann describes his experience:

"... affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated[-]like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away."

What he "stumbled upon", was the discovery of lysergic acid diethylamide, a chemical that actually produces, though temporarily, a state of psychosis.

Dr. Albert Hofmann
Dr. Albert Hofmann | Source

Researching a series of derivatives of amides extracted from fungi found on barley, rye, and other grass-like plants, Hofmann synthesized the twenty-fifth compound on the sixteenth of November, 1938, hence, the label lysergic acid diethylamide twenty-five (LSD-25). Shelved by Sandoz for being "apparently useless", It was only the chemist's personal curiosity that compelled him to continue his research five years later, revealing it's hallucinogenic properties.

Three days after his discovery, Hofmann, reporting only to his lab assistant, conducted an independent experiment by ingesting .25 milligrams (250 millionths of a gram) of the substance, taking notes as he experienced the effects during an extended bike ride, marking the beginning of a lifelong "experimentational" relationship with the drug.

Age Old Beginnings?

As lysergic acid diethylamide is derived from alkaloids of a fungus that grows on the rye plant, often referred to as "ergot of rye", many theories have sprung up since Hofmann's discovery to explain age old phenomena.

Throughout history, outbreaks of "ergotism", caused by the ingestation of bread made from the ergot infested grain, were exhibited in two manifestations, gangrenous and convulsive. Gangrenous ergotism would produce severe burning, itching, pustules, and eventual gangrene in the extremities, whereas convulsive ergotism was evidenced by bazaar behaviors like arched feet, hands, neck and back, "dance like" body spasms, and auditory, tactile and visual hallucinations.

The Temptation of St. Anthony - Matthias Grünewald, 1515
The Temptation of St. Anthony - Matthias Grünewald, 1515 | Source

Throughout the Middle Ages, these random, recurring outbreaks were explained by the Church as being punishment against sinners and dubbed "Holy Fire" or "St. Anthony's Fire". Nobody questioned the authority of the Church.

Similar episodes around the same time period in Germany were recorded as "Dancing Mania", characterized by erratic gestures and spontaneous movement.

In the New World, the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692 have now been traced to infestations of "ergotism" as records show that the climate of that year was conducive to the growth of the fungus.

Modern researchers have pieced together data of climate conditions during periods of "Holy Fire" and "St. Anthony's Fire" and have determined that the conditions would warrant the growth of the fungus on the rye harvest. Also, demographic analysis shows that the poorer, less selective classes displayed the clearest likelihood of "ergotism", adding additional strength to the "ergot of rye" theories.

Nevertheless, all of the conclusions are based on educated hypothesis and theory, none have been proven absolutely.

As recently as 1951, an occurrence in Pont-Saint-Esprit, France, referred to as "Le Pain Maudit", involved a large portion of the town, resulting in 7 deaths and dozens being sent to asylums before the malady passed as quickly as it arrived.

Psychochemical Weaponry

By 1953, studies sanctioned by the US government were underway as part of the CIAs mind control program, code named MKUltra, continuing for twenty years. In addition to extensive use of LSD, barbituates, ampthetamines and other drugs were also used in the studies which included the use of electronics and hypnosis in behavioral experimentation.

The Korean War, the anti-Communist political movement of U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy, and Project MKUltra, all by-products of the "Cold War" between the powers of the east (USSR and the Soviet Bloc) and west (US and NATO), still a relatively new global political concept in the early 1950s, influenced Richard Condon's novel The Manchurian Candidate. Published in 1959, Condon's thriller has twice been made into a major motion picture. The first, with multiple awards and nominations, in 1962, and a more recent re-make in 2004.

Another research program was being conducted throughout the 1950s at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland. The project, classified by the U.S. Army, used over 5,000 GIs as test subjects, who were given, unbeknownst to them, drugs ranging from marijuana, mescaline, LSD and PCP to the potentially lethal nerve agents sarin and VX. If the test subjects survived, many remained psychologically traumatized and were left with life-long health problems.

Over a 20 year period, rumors of the Edgewood experiments leaked into the public and subsequently became known as "Operation Delirium". In 1975, the decision was made to conclude the experiments.

Numerous deaths resulted from these governmental projects, which were shrouded in secrecy for many years, but the mysterious fate of Dr. Frank Olson became the most publicized. Plunging 12 stories from a Manhattan Hotel in 1953, Olsen's death had been recorded as a suicide. He had allegedly been suffering from severe paranoia and a nervous breakdown prior to the incident. According to later investigation, Dr. Olson, a biological warfare scientist employed by the Central Intelligence Agency, had consumed his morning coffee laced with LSD without his knowledge, just days before his "suicide." After learning of the government's involvement, the family requested a second autopsy where it was determined that there was evidence "suggestive of homicide." The case was settled out of court in 1976 with a government payment of $750,000 to the Olson family, causing a suit filed years later by Olson's sons to be dismissed by the US District Court in Washington D.C. in July of 2013.

A Culture Emerges

Following the close of World War II came a sense of paranoia and conspiracy, out of which grew the Beat Generation.

The Beat culture (or counterculture), started with literature. Allen Ginsberg's Howl and other poems, Lawrence Relinghetti's poem A Coney Island of the Mind, William S. Burrough's novel Naked Lunch and Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road, were based on the newly found freedoms following the oppressions of the Second World War and served as foreshadowing of the upcoming activism of the 1960s.

Upon it's arrival to the United States in 1949, LSD was classified as an investigational drug, authorized for experimental purposes, but not illegal. Until the late 1950s, the drug was being used to treat neuroses and alcoholism, as well as to enhance creativity, but was under the scrutinous eye of Dr. Sidney Cohen, a clinical professor at UCLA who conducted experiments with LSD throughout the 1950s. In 1960, Cohen presented his warnings of the danger of LSD with its developing black market and growing counterculture - though he also testified that the drug had beneficial usages if administered in a controlled setting.

A friend of Albert Hofmann, reknowned British author Aldous Huxley, joined the movement when he published two novels, The Doors of Perception in 1954 and Heaven and Hell in 1956, both based upon his hallucinogenic experiences. On his deathbed on the 22nd of November, 1963, Huxley requested from his wife (and was granted), 2 injections of LSD within a few hours. Dying later in the day, the death of the author was overshadowed by the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

A Ph.D. in clinical psychology and lecturer in psychiatric research at Harvard University since 1959, Dr. Timothy Leary, became the "spokesperson" for LSD and it's cultural enlightenment, and actually shared the stage with LSD critique Cohen at a congressional hearing in 1966. Leary's 1966 phrase "turn on, tune in, drop out.", became a symbolic mantra of the 1960's .

During the early 1950s, researchers at Stanford University in conjunction with MKULTRA, were offering ordinary citizens over $100 to participate in LSD studies and record their experiences while also being under observation. One of these participants was author Ken Kesey.

A graduate student in creative writing at Stanford, Kesey, volunteered for the government drug research project in 1959 at Menlo Park Veterans Hospital in Palo Alto, California. Besides LSD, the testing included psilocybin, mescaline, and amphetamine IT-290, and after several years of involvement in the research, Kesey penned One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest based on those experiences. By the early 1960s, Kesey's small group of followers with it's goal to reform society, drew noted "beatnik" Neal Cassady. With the arrival of Cassady, Jack Kerouac's sidekick in On the Road, the group became known as "The Merry Pranksters" and by the mid-1960s, the "hippie" movement was underway in San Francisco.

The "Pranksters", including journalist Lee Quarnstrom and electronics design consultant Tim Scully as core members, partook in a series of parties at Kesey's farm in La Honda, California, popularized by author Tom Wolfe in his 1968 nonfiction, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Another writer of the time, psychologist James Fadiman, was heavily involved in psychedelic research. Fadiman and friend Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass), formed a team to study the effects of psylocibin while in Paris, which ceased in 1966. The findings of the research were the basis of several books. Fadiman later earned degrees from Harvard and Stanford Universities.

Originally looked upon as an "Orwellian" concept of authoritarian control over the masses, the rapidly growing digital revolution began to be accepted by the rising culture as collaborative endeavors by groups like MIT's "Tech Model Railroad Club" and the "Homebrew Computer Club" on the west coast began to appear. Though generally eschewing the "sex, drugs and rock and roll" manifesto of the age, the new breed of "nerds" dovetailed with the "hippies" and "beatniks" in that they felt that they were working against a common adversary, authority.

The Disciples

While Albert Hofmann discovered the hallucinogenic properties of LSD through pharmaceutical research, Timothy Leary discovered a spiritual awakening experimenting with LSD.

Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert -  Harvard Department of Psychology - 1960
Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert - Harvard Department of Psychology - 1960

Leary, along with several research cohorts and those influenced by him, emerged as disciples of the movement.

Dr. Richard Alpert, later known as the famous spiritual teacher "Ram Dass", was a psychology professor from the University of California at Berkely who met Leary when they worked together at Harvard.

Alpert and Leary were involved in the research of the therapeutic value of LSD-25, psilocybin and other hallucinogenics and co-authored the 1964 publication The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, later referred to as The Psychedelic Experience. Leary and Alpert were formally dismissed from the university in 1963. According to Harvard President Nathan M. Pusey, Leary was dismissed for leaving Cambridge and his classes without permission or notice, and Alpert for allegedly giving psilocybin to an undergraduate.

Ralph Metzner, a German born psychologist, researcher and writer, participated in the psychedelic research with Leary and Alpert at Harvard University during the early 60's. Metzer's work in consciousness research led to the founding of the Green Earth Foundation, an organization promoting global harmony.

Alan Watts was a San Francisco Bay area philosopher greatly influenced by Leary. Born in England, Watts came to the US to study theology, becoming an Episcopal Priest. He soon left the ministry to focus on eastern religions, and began experimentation with psychedelic drugs with fellow Brit, author Aldous Huxley. Publishing many works on philosophy, religion and aesthetics, his most well-known is The Way of Zen.

Terence Kemp McKenna, dubbed "the Timothy Leary of the 90's" by Leary himself, was a poet out of the wild San Francisco of th 60's. McKenna became interested in psychedelics by reading Huxley's The Door to Perception based on his experiences with hallucinogenic drugs. His studies sent him around the world, from Nepal to South America where he discovered huge fields of psilocybin mushrooms which became the focus of his research. He finished his studies at U.C. Berkeley acquiring a degree in shamanism.

Ram Dass and Metzner, still alive and in their late 70s, both reside in Hawaii where they practice spiritual teachings and consciousness research.

The Psychedelic Sixties

The 1960s was a decade of radical change. Distrust of authority, heightened awareness, change of consciousness, and a general sense of anti-establishmentarianism, blended with the psychedelic experience to influence art, music, fashion and social change. Some consider the era to include all the 1960s into the mid-1970s, while true "60s Die Hards" consider the real deal to have started with the music of the mid-1960s, culminating at the Woodstock festival in August of 1969.

Most popular music genres of the time were affected, with folk artists like Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Country Joe and the Fish; rock bands Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Yes; psychedelic soul with Sly and the Family Stone and trickling into the pop scene with the likes of Donovan, The Beach Boys, Tommy James and the Shondells and The Beatles.

Psychedelia in music began to decline by the end of the decade having already seen several "acid casualties" as exemplified by Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett and to a lesser extent Fleetwood Mac's Peter Green and Brian Wilson of "The Beach Boys".

Cosmic 60's - Peter Max
Cosmic 60's - Peter Max

The art of Peter Max, like that used by The Beatles for their Yellow Submarine album, seemed to be everywhere and has become the predominant art style associated with the second half of the decade.

Andy Warhol must have been inspired by, and perhaps under the influence of, psychedelic drugs in his artwork of the period, like his capitalism satire Campbell Soup Cans, his paranoia based Mushroom Clouds and his portrayal of icons Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis Presley and Mae Tse Tung.

With the aftermath of WWII and the Korean War and the escalating Viet Nam conflict, bell bottoms, born from Army/Navy surplus, became a fashion staple smacking of rebellion against the military. Colorful garments, tie-dyed t-shirts, sandals, flowers worn in the hair and females going "sans brassiere" were fashion by-products of the "set yourself free" ideology.

1962 saw the first underground laboratory setup by Bernard Roseman in northern California. Though he successfully manufactured LSD, his product was of lesser quality than that produced by Sandoz, as he himself later wrote. Another Bernard, Bernard Copley, also created an underground laboratory in 1963, hence "the two Bernards" in reference to black-market LSD.

As use of the drug increased dramatically by 1965, two west coast chemistry students became involved in black-market production in Los Angeles, Augustus Owsley Stanley III (known simply as Owsley) and Tim Scully, both credited with producing the varieties of LSD called "Purple Haze", "White Lightening" and "Orange Sunshine". Those acronyms for LSD and others have become common nomenclature like "Acid", "Blotter", "Mr. Natural", "Microdot", "Window Pane" and "Tabs".

By the mid-1960s, the government had begun to take action against the drug by restricting its availability and attempting to make its use illegal. Roseman and Copley, "the two Bernards", were arrested and faced trial in 1966. In 1967, Owsley was arrested and also brought to trial and Scully, who had become Owsley's apprentice, was arrested in 1969. Scully was convicted in the early 1970s and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment but was released on parole in 1980. Roseman, Copley, Owsley, Scully with just a few others, dominated control of black-market LSD production in the United States. Though they were all convicted and penalized in various degrees of severity, the publicity merely promoted them to figureheads, serving to inspire the counterculture revolution.

Therapeutic Uses

A psychiatrist who was at the cutting edge of psychiatric research, put together a study in the late 1950s. Dr Humphry Osmond gave LSD to alcoholics in Alcoholics Anonymous who had failed to quit drinking. After one year, around 50% of the study group had not had a drink — a success rate that has never been duplicated by any other means. It was Dr. Osmond who is credited for coining the term "psychedlic" after consulting well-known author, Aldous Huxley, whom he "turned on" to the drug, in coming up with the term. They became longtime friends.

In the United Kingdom the use of LSD was pioneered by Dr Ronald A. Sandison in 1952, at Powick Hospital, Worcestershire. A special LSD unit was set up in 1958. After Dr Sandison left the hospital in 1964, medical superintendent Dr Justin Johanson took over and used the drug until he retired in 1972. In all, 683 patients were treated with LSD in 13,785 separate sessions at Powick, but Dr Spencer was the last member of the medical staff to use it.

Psychedelic Culture Lives On

Steve Jobs described his own LSD experience as “one of the two or three most important things” he had done in his life.

In 1985, Northern Illinois University Professor Thomas B. Roberts, invented the name "Bicycle Day" when he founded the first celebration at his home in DeKalb, Illinois, on the 42nd anniversary of Hofmann's first "acid trip". Changing the date of the celebration to the 19th instead of the actual date of Hofmann's discovery on the 16th, which fell in the middle of the week, "Bicycle Day" became an annual observance by the ongoing psychedelic community.

When the psychedelia trend first faded, it was looked back upon as a "vintage" style, but since that style seems to become retrofitted into the mainstream, becoming popular again and again, would it not be technically considered a "classic" style?

In addition to Steve Jobs and Aldous Huxley, other people instrumental to today's culture having openly related their experiences with LSD include founder of Microsoft Bill Gates, pioneer of genetic research and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Francis Crick, who with James Watson are credited with the discovery of DNA and its double helix molecule structure, actors Jack Nicholson, Angelina Jolie, and Carey Grant, as well as cartoonist Matt Groening.

Final Analysis

By as early as 1962, LSD, labeled as "too unpredictable", was losing its appeal in the research community and was being phased out in experiments to be replaced by the "superhallucinogen" quinuclidinyl benzilate, code-named BZ. The Director of the CIA during the project was Richard Helms, and by 1973, with the investigation into the "Watergate" scandal, ordered all documents relating to MKUltra destroyed. However, 20,000 documents escaped destruction as they were wrongly stored at a financial records building and discovered in a 1977 "Freedom of Information Act" request and investigated during a subsequent Senate Hearing.

During the Investigation following the "Le Pain Maudit" incident of 1951, it was disclosed that the CIA had dosed unsuspecting subjects with LSD during that period of time and in the vicinity of the incident.

LSD was declared illegal in the state of California on the sixth of October, 1966, and Federally banned on the twenty-fourth of October, 1968. LSD and similar hallucinogens including psilocybin, peyote and mescaline, fell under the Controlled Substance Act of the twenty-seventh of October, 1970.

Whether the experience of the "psychedelic sixties", or the "roaring twenties" for that matter, were beneficial or detrimental to the advancement of civilization is difficult to determine, but the dangers are better known today, and are indeed, evils to be reckoned with.

While very few, if any, fatalities have been recorded as a result of the drug itself, the indirect damage is difficult to assess. One fact, however, stands tall. LSD is still illegal.

End of the Beginning of an Era

"It gave me an inner joy, an open mindedness, a gratefulness, open eyes and an internal sensitivity for the miracles of creation. [...] I think that in human evolution it has never been as necessary to have this substance LSD. It is just a tool to turn us into what we are supposed to be.”

—Albert Hofmann, Speech on 100th birthday

Albert Hofmann died on April 29, 2008, of a heart attack at the age of 102.

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stevarino 2 months ago from East Central Indiana Author

The Freedom of Information Act allowed for many government activities to be illuminated. Thanks for reading and for your kind words FlourishAnyway!


FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 2 months ago from USA

This is a thorough and well researched article. Well done! I can't imagine being given those drugs without informed consent. What a betrayal.

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