On Albert Hofmann, inventor of LSD

From the National Post (Canada)
Published on May 01, 2008, 1:47 PM EST
By Colby Cosh

The Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, who died on Tuesday at the age of 102, assembled a remarkable track record as an investigator one that stretched back to the wild-west days of chemistry and pharmacy, when ventilated fume hoods were considered an expensive affectation, occasional self-experimentation was not only permitted but expected, and a lone individual was involved in every stage of drug discovery from conceptualization to fabricating the pills. As a graduate student Hofmann revealed the structure of insect chitin; later he would master the complex chemical world found within ergot, a cereal fungus with a fantastical range of effects on the human nervous system. His ergot-derived “children”, as he called them, would include drugs that remain in the pharmacopoeia to this day: methergine to prevent obstetrical bleeding, the anti-dementia vasodilator hydergine, dihydergot for migraine.

But Hofmann, as often happens, reserved the greatest affection for what he referred to in a remarkable 1980 memoir as his “problem child”: lysergic acid diethylamide.

LSD-25, as it was known when Hofmann first synthesized it in 1938, was originally just one in a long series of ergot-derived compounds that he considered promising. He hoped it would turn out to be an effective “circulatory and respiratory stimulant.” In animal tests, a modest clinical effect was noted, but mostly the subjects just became “restless.” The batch was discarded. Ergot was expensive, war was approaching, and Hofmann’s employer, Sandoz, was tight-fisted. No one could have imagined that humans would ever again synthesize LSD-25.

But Hofmann had had a “peculiar presentiment”, and five years later, on April 16, 1943, he made more, hardly knowing what he would do with it. The new batch amounted to a speck of a few centigrams. As he was finishing up, he was, in the words of the lab report he later scribbled, “interrupted” by a feeling of dizziness that obliged him to abandon his desk and go home, where he lay down and was regaled with “an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.”

On recovery, it seemed clear to him that he had accidentally ingested a microscopic amount of something toxicsomething with a hallucinatory strength per gram far transcending that of any known substance. He had been working with LSD, so it was the obvious candidate. Clearly a further experiment, carefully documented as it happened, was in order.

On April 19, he deliberately took a quarter-milligram of LSD. Generations of acid-heads have gotten a belly laugh out of Hofmann’s expectation that he could take coherent notes after absorbing such a massive hit. The part of his “trip report” written under the influence is 13 words long: “Beginning dizziness, feeling of anxiety, visual distortions, symptoms of paralysis, desire to laugh.” Even this much was scrawled, he later said, “only with great effort.” Nursed through a three-hour trip by a bemused neighbour and a country doctor, Hofmann was surprised to find that he felt well, even refreshed, and that he could remember his experience in fine detail.

From that day forward the sober, reserved scientist began to live a double life. The psychiatric profession embraced LSD, and in the ’50s its power to impose the cosmic perspective and distort the ego showed promise in treating psychosis. While acting as chief consultant to this research program, Hofmann became a confidant and friend to non-academic experimenters like Aldous Huxley (whose last words on earth were a request for an intramuscular jab of LSD). In later years, he also had to calm freaked-out youths who occasionally turned up at his office or his home, explaining to one young American girl that her plan to secretly dose President Johnson probably wasn’t very practical.

Before long the genie escaped the bottle. This was largely owing to Harvard lecturer Timothy Leary, whose experiments with psychedelics, which began in 1960, gradually strayed further and further outside the lab. By 1963, Hofmann reflected ruefully, “The experiments had turned into LSD parties,” and Leary had become a messiah of LSD. Meanwhile, amateur chemists had mastered the intricacies of its production, and its influence outside the controlled setting was proving ambivalent, though surely never quite so evil as hysterical newspaper critics made out.

Hofmann and Leary had only one genuine conversation, sharing lunch at a train station in Lausanne in 1971 after Leary’s escape from a California prison. Hofmann lectured the American about his publicity-seeking and his dangerous habit of giving LSD to the young. Leary replied, with customary asininity, that doing so was perfectly safe “because teenagers in the United States, with regard to information and life experience, were comparable to adult Europeans.” Hofmann left the station more confident than ever that Leary was a menacethe man who had led his “problem child” astray. He was to die awaiting the day that proper research into its healing potential could resume.

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