Published on 8 May, 2008
From The Economist
HIS first experience was “rather agreeable”. As he worked in the Sandoz research laboratory in Basel in Switzerland on April 16th 1943, isolating and synthesising the unstable alkaloids of the ergot fungus, Albert Hofmann began to feel a slight lightheadedness. He could not think why. His lab was shared with two other chemists; frugality and company had taught him careful habits. And this was a man whose doctoral thesis had revolved around the gastrointestinal juices of the vineyard snail.
Perhaps, he supposed, he had inhaled the fumes of the solvent he was using. In any event, he took himself home and lay down on the sofa. There the world exploded, dissolving into a kaleidoscope of colours, shapes, spirals and light. It seemed to have something to do with lysergic acid diethylamide, LSD-25, the substance he had been working on. He had synthesised it five years before, but had found it “uninteresting” and stopped. Now, like some prince in faery, he had got the stuff on his fingertips, rubbed it into his eyes and seen the secrets of the universe.
The next Monday, ever the good scientist, he deliberately took 0.25 milligrams of LSD diluted with 10cc of water. It tasted of nothing. But by 5 o’clock the lab was distorting, and his limbs were stiffening. The last words he managed to scrawl in his lab journal were “desire to laugh”. That desire soon left him. As he cycled home with a companion, perhaps the most famous bike ride in history, he had no idea he was moving. But in his house the furniture was ghoulishly mutating and spinning, and the neighbour who brought him milk as an antidote was “a witch with a coloured mask”. He realised now that LSD was the devil he couldn’t shake off, though in his senseless body he screamed and writhed on the sofa, certain that he was dying.
After six hours it left him. The last hour was wonderful again, with images “opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in coloured fountains.” Each sound made colours. His doctor found nothing physically wrong with him, except for extremely dilated pupils. The substance evidently left the body quickly, and caused no hangover. But the mind it flung apart, reassembled and profoundly changed, leaving him the next morning as fresh as a newborn child.
Over the next decades, Mr Hofmann took an awful lot of LSD. He ingested it listening to Mozart and looking at red roses. He learned not to take it when tired, or with amphetamines (a very bad trip). As head of the natural products division at Sandoz, he revelled in its potential for psychiatry. Though he also developed derivatives of ergot that helped circulation and respiration, and had a drawerful of useful pharmaceuticals to his name, it was LSD that filled him with “the joy of fatherhood”. And the sense it had given him, of union with nature and of the spiritual basis of all creation, convinced him that he had found a sacrament for the modern age: the antidote to the ennui caused by consumerism, industrialisation and the vanishing of the divine from human life.
Yellow and purple and green
It proved disastrous for him that Timothy Leary at Harvard had the same idea. When the professor told his students in the 1960s that LSD was the route to the divine, the true self and (not least) great sex, use of the drug became an epidemic. People ingested it, in impure forms, from sugar cubes and blotting paper. They blamed it for accidents, murders and wild attempts to fly. The media flowered in psychedelic shades of orange, purple, yellow and green, and in the melting shapes and dizzying circles of a world gone almost mad. Mr Hofmann in 1971 met Leary in the snack bar at Lausanne station; he found him a charmer, but because of his carelessness LSD had by then been banned in most countries, and production and research had been stopped. They never resumed.
Mr Hofmann turned his chemist’s attention to other things: the Mexican magic mushroom, whose active compounds he synthesised into little white pills, and the LSD-like properties of the seeds of the blue morning-glory flower. He continued his self-experiments with both of them—noting that on his mushroom trip his very German doctor became an Aztec priest who seemed about to slice his chest open with an obsidian knife. He loved his work, but still mourned the disappearance of his “problem child”. LSD, treated with respect, could have powerfully instructed men and women in the glories of the spiritual dimension of life. But they had abused it, so it had given them terrors instead.
Without it, however, Mr Hofmann knew it was still possible to get to the same place. As a child, wandering in May on a forest path above Baden in a year he had forgotten, he had suddenly been filled with such a sense of the radiance and oneness of creation that he thought the vision would last for ever. “Miraculous, powerful, unfathomable reality” had ambushed him elsewhere, too: the wind in a field of yellow chrysanthemums, leaves in the sunlit garden after a shower of rain. When he had drunk LSD in solution on that fateful April afternoon he had recovered those insights, but had not surpassed them. His advice to would-be trippers, therefore, was simple. “Go to the meadow, go to the garden, go to the woods. Open your eyes!”