On this day in 1943, Albert Hofmann (right), a chemist working for the Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz, discovered the psychedelic properties of LSD. Hofmann had actually first synthesized the drug 5 years earlier, as part of a research program in which the therapeutic effects of derivatives of ergot alkaloids – chemicals produced by a fungus – were being investigated.
In his autobiography, LSD: My Problem Child, Hofmann explains how he accidentally ingested the drug while synthesizing it in the laboratory:
It seemed to have resulted from some external toxic influence; I surmised a connection with the substance I had been working with at the time, lysergic acid diethylamide tartrate. But this led to another question: how had I managed to absorb this material? Because of the known toxicity of ergot substances, I always maintained meticulously neat work habits. Possibly a bit of the LSD solution had contacted my fingertips during crystallization, and a trace of the substance was absorbed through the skin. If LSD-25 had indeed been the cause of this bizarre experience, then it must be a substance of extraordinary potency. There seemed to be only one way of getting to the bottom of this. I decided on a self-experiment.
In this passage, Hoffman describes the effects of the drug:
Last Friday, April 16,1943, I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being 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 dream-like 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.
At a later date, Hofmann again synthesized LSD-25 for self-experimentation. This time, however, the effects of the drug overwhelmed him:
Exercising extreme caution, I began the planned series of experiments with the smallest quantity that could be expected to produce some effect, considering the activity of the ergot alkaloids known at the time: namely, 0.25 mg…it was already clear to me that LSD had been the cause of the remarkable experience of the previous Friday, for the altered perceptions were of the same type as before, only much more intense. I had to struggle to speak intelligibly. I asked my laboratory assistant, who was informed of the self-experiment, to escort me home. On the way…my condition began to assume threatening forms. Everything in my field of vision wavered and was distorted as if seen in a curved mirror. I also had the sensation of being unable to move from the spot. Nevertheless, my assistant later told me that we had traveled very rapidly. Finally, we arrived at home safe and sound, and I was just barely capable of asking my companion to summon our family doctor and request milk from the neighbors.
In spite of my delirious, bewildered condition, I had brief periods of clear and effective thinking – and chose milk as a nonspecific antidote for poisoning.
The dizziness and sensation of fainting became so strong at times that I could no longer hold myself erect, and had to lie down on a sofa. My surroundings had now transformed themselves in more terrifying ways. Everything in the room spun around, and the familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forms. They were in continuous motion, animated, as if driven by an inner restlessness. The lady next door, whom I scarcely recognized, brought me milk – in the course of the evening I drank more than two liters. She was no longer Mrs. R., but rather a malevolent, insidious witch with a colored mask.
Even worse than these demonic transformations of the outer world, were the alterations that I perceived in myself, in my inner being. Every exertion of my will, every attempt to put an end to the disintegration of the outer world and the dissolution of my ego, seemed to be wasted effort. A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind, and soul. I jumped up and screamed, trying to free myself from him, but then sank down again and lay helpless on the sofa. The substance, with which I had wanted to experiment, had vanquished me. It was the demon that scornfully triumphed over my will. I was seized by the dreadful fear of going insane. I was taken to another world, another place, another time. My body seemed to be without sensation, lifeless, strange. Was I dying? Was this the transition? At times I believed myself to be outside my body, and then perceived clearly, as an outside observer, the complete tragedy of my situation. I had not even taken leave of my family (my wife, with our three children had traveled that day to visit her parents, in Lucerne). Would they ever understand that I had not experimented thoughtlessly, irresponsibly, but rather with the utmost caution, and that such a result was in no way foreseeable? My fear and despair intensified, not only because a young family should lose its father, but also because I dreaded leaving my chemical research work, which meant so much to me, unfinished in the midst of fruitful, promising development. Another reflection took shape, an idea full of bitter irony: if I was now forced to leave this world prematurely, it was because of this lysergic acid diethylamide that I myself had brought forth into the world.
Historical research shows that LSD was effective in treating alcoholism
For the last 5 years, Erika Dyck, a professor of medical history at the University of Alberta, has been investigating the work of a pioneering group of Canadian psychiatrists who in the 1950s and 60s used LSD to treat alcoholic patients.
During that time, she has uncovered research papers describing studies in which single doses of the hallucinogenic drug were an effective effective treatment for alcoholism, and has interviewed patients who participated in the clinical trials documented in the papers. Her findings are published in Social History of Medicine.
Some of the papers found by Dyck were authored by Humphry Osmond, the controversial British psychiatrist who first used the term ‘psychedelic’ at a meeting of the New York Academy of Sciences in the early 1950s, and who gave Aldous Huxley the dose of mescaline which gave the writer the inspiration for his book The Doors of Perception.
In one of the studies, conducted in 1962, 65% of alcoholic patients given a single dose of LSD stopped drinking for at least one-and-a-half years, compared to 25% of control patients who received group therapy and 12% of another control group given traditional forms of therapy which were popular at the time.
“The LSD somehow gave these people experiences that psychologically took them outside of themselves and allowed them to see their own unhealthy behavior more objectively, and then determine to change it,” says Dyck. “[It] appeared to allow the patients to go through a spiritual journey that ultimately empowered them to heal themselves, and that’s really quite an amazing therapy regimen.”
Most of the studies uncovered by Dyck were later discredited because they did not involve randomized, controlled clinical trials. Nevertheless, Dyck says that the use of LSD was not, as many people believe, on the fringes of biomedical research but instead was a legitimate branch of psychiatry which was promising and encouraging. She says that the use of LSD by members of the anti-war counterculture in the 1960s, and its subsequent criminalization by the government made research into its effects unpopular. This glut in research into psychotomimetic drugs lasted for decades, and it is only recently that biomedical research into LSD and related substances has resumed.
“Even interviewing the patients 40 years after their experience, I was surprised at how loyal they were to the doctors who treated them, and how powerful they said the experience was for them – some even felt the experience saved their lives,” continues Dyck. “I think the researchers in Saskatchewan, among others, showed the drug is unique and has some intriguing properties that need to be explored further.”
Erika Dyck (2005). Flashback: Psychiatric experimentation with LSD in historical perspective. Can. J. Psychiatry 50: 381-388
National Institutes of Health Factsheet on LSD
The Doors of Perception, by Aldous Huxley (full text)
(Photo of Albert Hofmann by Stefan Pangritz)