Oxford University Press
Originally appearing here.
Albert Hofmann was one of the most important scientists of our time, who through his famous discovery of LSD, crossed the bridge from the world of science into the spiritual realm, transforming social and political culture in his wake. He was both rationalist and mystic, chemist and visionary, and in this duality we find his true spirit.
In boyhood, he had experienced inexplicable, spontaneous transfigurations of nature while walking in the woods, which spurred him to investigate the nature of matter through chemistry. While researching ergot and its potential impact on blood circulation, he accidentally discovered a chemical key that unlocked a pathway to a profoundly altered state of consciousness, offering the potential for great insights into the workings of the mind and the cosmos.
After experiencing its power and its dangers first-hand on his infamous bicycle ride (70 years ago today, on 19 April 1943), Hofmann understood that LSD, if used correctly and with care, could be a vital tool for investigating human consciousness. In later research, he realised that the molecule had virtually the same chemical structure as those in plants used as sacraments for thousands of years by indigenous cultures around the world. He was also the first chemist to isolate the psychoactive compounds of psilocybin and psilocine, found in ‘magic’ mushrooms and the closely connected morning-glory seeds.
Following its discovery, LSD was acclaimed as a wonder-drug in psychiatry, speeding-up and deepening the healing process by accelerating access to psychological trauma. Between 1943 and 1970, it generated almost 10,000 scientific publications, leading to its description as ‘the most intensively researched pharmacological substance ever’.
It also had a broader and more profound effect on how science viewed the mind, changing the dominant view of mental illness from the psychoanalytical model to one understood by brain-chemistry and the role of neurotransmitters. The LSD-experience resembled looking through a microscope and becoming aware of a different reality ” a manifest, mystical totality, normally filtered out and hidden from view.
Hofmann realised that a substance with such profound effects on perception was likely to arouse interest beyond the medical field ” though he never expected it to find worldwide popularity as a recreational drug. But ‘the more its use as an inebriant was disseminated” the more LSD became a problem child’. These negative developments were not to Albert Hofmann’s liking. He was amazed that LSD had been adopted as the drug of choice by the mass counterculture, but once the genie was out of the bottle, the world could never be the same again.
Harvard-Professor-turned-Pied-Piper Timothy Leary emerged as a messianic guru. The mass consumption of psychedelics that Leary advocated led to LSD’s prohibition in 1967, to the War on Drugs, and to the complete shutdown of all therapeutic use and scientific research involving the substance.
The legacy of LSD is as controversial as it is profound, and its effects on science, technology, politics, art, and music cannot be overestimated. Many creative pioneers of the era claim to have made their breakthroughs either under the influence of LSD, or as a result of insights gained from it. The IT revolution that grew into Silicon Valley is a prime example of this.
In recent years, despite huge obstacles, the experimental use of LSD is, very cautiously, beginning again. Earlier this year, the Beckley Foundation received the first ever permissions for a brain-imaging study of the effects of LSD on human participants, an undertaking that I promised Albert Hofmann I would carry out.
With other psychedelics, the renaissance in experimentation is well and truly underway. Projects have investigated the neural basis of the effects of psilocybin and MDMA, while other research in the USA and elsewhere has made vital first steps into uncovering the clinical efficacy of these drugs ” for example, MDMA’s success as an aid to psychotherapy in treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The Medical Research Council in the UK recently gave a £550,000 grant to investigate the efficacy of psilocybin in treating depression, marking the first time (as far as we are aware) that a government body has funded psychedelic research. There is thus reason for renewed optimism that, as Albert Hofmann hoped, if people could learn to use LSD more wisely, once again ‘this problem child would become a wonder child’.
The Beckley Foundation Founder Amanda Feilding details the history of Bicycle Day, the anniversary of the first intentional LSD experience. Feilding provides insight into the resurgence of psychedelic research, remarking on the success of research into MDMA-assisted psychotherapy as a treatment for PTSD and other initiatives.