Timothy Leary’s Transformation From Scientist to Psychedelic Celebrity

Greg Miller

Originally appearing here.

Timothy Leary’s life is now open to the public. The archives of the one-time Harvard psychologist who became an evangelist for the mind-expanding potential of hallucinogenic drugs in the 1960s have found a new home at the New York Public Library, which recently threw a party to celebrate their release.

I was born too late to witness Leary’s transition from scientist to counterculture celebrity, and I hoped the archives might offer a little hint of what it was like to be there. So I got myself invited to the opening in hopes of being enlightened.

By Leary standards the party was pretty tame ” people sipped wine, a man handed out peacock feathers, a flatscreen in the corner looped strange video games Leary helped develop late in life (he died in 1996). But hints of a wilder past could be found in a glass case that displayed a few artifacts, including a 1960 letter from the beat poet Allen Ginsberg asking Leary if he could score some mescaline for the great abstract expressionist painters Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.

A serious scholar ” or any curious person ” could spend months poring over the archives. But I only had a few hours, so I decided to check out the files from Leary’s days at Harvard in the early 60s.

In April I attended the Psychedelic Science conference and wrote an article on the recent resurgence of scientific research on psychedelic drugs. Scientists have become interested once again in these drugs both for what they could reveal about the nature of human consciousness and for their potential to help people with depression and anxiety. Leary pioneered this research. But some of those working on it today blame him for ruining it for everybody else. His later antics, they say, precipitated a backlash that criminalized psychedelics and made it impossible to do serious research on them for decades.

After my article came out, I got a couple emails from Leary supporters, including his stepson Zach, complaining that they’re sick of hearing people blame all this on Leary. I met Zach briefly at the party and asked him to elaborate. What squashed the fledgling psychedelic research movement was the cultural and social upheaval of the times, not the actions of any one person, he said. “The fucking sixties happened, man.”

It seemed like a fair point. But I was still curious about Leary’s early research. Was it actually legit? Would there be tabs of acid tucked inside folders of charts and graphs?

There would not be. For one thing, Leary was having a hard time getting his hands on LSD in those days, assistant curator Thomas Lannon explained as he spread out files for us to look at on a huge wooden table in one of the library’s reading rooms. The research mainly used psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms, and occasionally DMT, a potent and fast-acting hallucinogen derived from plants. (Grace Slick, the lead singer for Jefferson Airplane, said that if LSD is like being sucked up a straw, DMT is like being shot out of a cannon).

My short tour of the archives did seem to show an interesting evolution.

Lannon laid out stacks of mimeographed research proposals, protocols, and data Leary and his colleagues collected at Harvard. There were highly detailed “session reports” of their subjects’ ” and their own ” experiences on psilocybin and DMT.

In those days, behaviorism was a dominant force in the Harvard psych department thanks to the looming presence of its founding father, B.F. Skinner. Leary rejected this philosophy, which holds that psychologists should concern themselves only with observable behavior and forget about trying to explore thoughts, beliefs, and other internal mental states.

Leary’s PhD thesis at UC Berkeley, which he completed in 1950, and work he did in the ensuing years, focused on interpersonal psychology. Unlike Skinner, he was very much interested in internal states, and in the interactions between experimenter and subject, or therapist and patient.

Leary and colleagues took detailed notes on their psychedelic drug sessions, some of which were carefully scripted. Lannon showed me an intriguing and enigmatic script for a DMT session that reads in part:

Minute 12: Open eyes, you are in a world where consciousness has left the robot.

Minute 14: Assemble plastic dolls

Minute 16: Decompose the plastic dolls. Wave vibrations.

In the famous Concord Prison Experiment, Leary and colleagues guided soon-to-be-paroled inmates at a nearby prison through psilocybin trips intended to get them to rethink their ways and become law-abiding citizens. The aim was to reduce recidivism.

“Leary goes to Harvard and he doesn’t want to lecture kids and wear fancy outfits, he wants to go into the prisons and teach people how to solve their own problems,” Lannon said. “It’s kind of a noble scientific ambition at first.”

The archives contain detailed records from the prison experiment ” fat folders for each prisoner with personal histories, batteries of personality tests and psychological profiles. There are tables of data and statistics. Superficially at least, it looks like a scientific process.

At the same time, other materials in the archive from the same time period tell a different side of the story. Leary may have taken his day job seriously, but at night the experiments got a little wilder.

Lannon spread out a series of black and white photos taken at Leary’s rented house in Cambridge. They show a young woman who’s clearly tripping. In some photos she’s laughing and dancing ecstatically, her hair flying. In a couple, a man is running his fingers through her hair and her face conveys that this is an intensely interesting experience. Like, whoa. In others, she looks far away, wary, maybe even a little afraid.

Lannon showed me a bill for damages Leary received from his landlord in 1961. It goes on for pages. It includes a dining table marred by scratches that “appear to be hammered with tines of fork.” It lists broken doors, burnt lampshades, a rug defiled by a dog then rolled up and shoved in the pantry, and ” perhaps the most predictable of all: “phonograph speaker ” completely blown out.”

Leary’s session reports of his own psychedelic experiences seem to change during the Harvard years. In the beginning his notes are detailed and neatly handwritten; some of them are typed. Later reports adhere less strictly to reality. In one, filled out in March 1963, just weeks before he got kicked out of Harvard, Leary prints in big block letters. He puts down a question mark for his age and lists his occupation as “ANGEL.”

Shortly before getting the boot from Harvard, Leary set up a research foundation called the International Federation for Internal Freedom (or IFIF), which was a kind of early citizen science project in which groups of six to 10 people could apply for membership, take consciousness expanding drugs and report their findings back to Leary. “At this point Leary is still appealing to science,” Lannon said.

In March of 1963, Leary wrote to Albert Hoffmann, the Swiss chemist of LSD asking him to send 100 grams (hundreds of thousands of doses) to further this endeavor in the name of science. Hoffmann politely declined.

I told Lannon it sounded a bit like Leary was just using his scientific credentials as a front for getting drugs at this point. “I don’t know,” he said. “Even if he’s just trying to get some acid, it’s remarkably well organized.”

After Harvard

Even after Leary got the boot from Harvard and decamped to Millbrook, an estate in upstate New York, he continued to carefully script psychedelic experiences for those around him, and he kept taking copious notes.

He collabor
ated with a Harvard physician and an engineer at MIT to develop a device called the Experiential Typewriter, which was intended to help get around a common obstacle in psychedelic research. Leary described the problem thusly in a paper in the Psychedelic Review (pdf): “When you ask a psychedelic subject what is happening, he can’t tell you. He looks at you blankly or he gasps ‘Wow!'”

The Typewriter looks a little like an old adding machine. It has large buttons with labels to indicate things like bodily sensations, hallucinations, or a sense of entering the void. It creates a paper script that’s like a record of someone’s trip. (Note that the script below depicts an experiment that ran through the middle of the night).

Is it a scientific instrument or a party trick? It’s hard to say.

According to Lannon, the point at which Leary made a final break with the scientific method came when Playboy magazine published a long interview with him in 1966. In it, Leary makes some outrageous claims, including that women commonly have several hundred orgasms during sex on LSD.

Up to that point, Lannon says, psychedelic experimentation (including the long traditions of Indian and South American healers and the earlier writings of Aldous Huxley and other Westerners who preceded Leary) had focused mostly on the intellectual and spiritual aspects of the experience. People taking drugs and having mystical experiences hardly seemed to threaten the fabric of society, Lannon said.

But people taking drugs and having orgies was something else entirely, at least as far as mainstream mid-’60s America was concerned. It was around this time that Leary coined his catchphrase, “turn on, tune in, drop out,” and many young people did just that, turning their backs on the traditional values of nuclear families and neat lawns with white picket fences.

It was enough to send conservatives like Richard Nixon into a moral panic. In the early 1970s, Nixon called Leary “the most dangerous man in America” (he later bestowed the same honor on Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers).

A Mixed Legacy

The research Leary did at Harvard was ground-breaking, especially in the context of the times, said Michael Horowitz, who has acted as Leary’s archivist and bibliographer since 1970.

“Prior research had been done mostly by the CIA and Army, looking at its potential as a psychological weapon with little regard for the subjects who were often dosed without their knowledge, and by medical doctors who treated LSD as a drug that mimicked psychosis,” Horowitz said. “Subjects were given the substance in clinical settings hooked up to instruments.”

In contrast, Horowitz says, Leary and his colleagues at Harvard were convinced psilocybin and LSD led to profound insights, and were motivated by the potential for using these drugs to promote positive behavioral change and creative problem-solving.

For another perspective on Leary’s scientific legacy, I called Rick Doblin, the founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. The picture he painted is mixed.

Leary and his collaborator Ralph Metzner claimed that psilocybin reduced recidivism by half in the Concord Prison experiment. But Doblin published a re-analysis 1998 that makes a strong case that that conclusion wasn’t warranted.

Leary and colleagues compared recidivism among the inmates who took psilocybin with another group of inmates from the same prison. But they didn’t do a fair comparison. For the psilocybin subjects, they looked at recidivism within 10 months of release, on average. For the control group, they looked at recidivism within 30 months. When Doblin redid the analysis using the same time period for both groups, the effect went away.

“The experiment itself was great,” Doblin told me. “The flaw was in the reporting of the results.”

Metzner admitted as much in a letter to the journal that published Doblin’s re-analysis. “We fell victim to the well-known ‘halo effect,’ by which researchers tend to see their data in as positive a light as possible,” he wrote.

Another famous experiment Leary helped conduct at Harvard, the so-called Good Friday experiment, fared somewhat better. That study described the intense spiritual experiences of divinity students who took psilocybin. Based on follow-up interviews and an analysis of the methods, Doblin concluded that the main findings hold up. But he also found that the researchers left out a disturbing reaction by one subject, who had to be given a calming dose of thorazine.

Failing to report an adverse event in a drug experiment is totally not cool. In fact, it’s an egregious lapse of research ethics.

Doblin thinks Leary felt justified in committing these scientific sins because he was trying to counter a wave of anti-psychedelic propaganda that was making vastly exaggerated claims about the drugs’ risks ” including ultimately unfounded claims that ordinary doses were likely to cause gene mutations, birth defects and cancer.

Even so, Doblin says it’s not fair to blame the decades-long lull in psychedelic research entirely on Leary. “He deserves some condemnation, but he also made a fundamental contribution to the scientific study of psychedelics,” Doblin said. “He did a lot that was really positive.”

Leary Lives On

It’s amazing that Leary’s archives survive as an intact collection, given that the man was imprisoned or on the run from the law for much of the ’60s and ’70s. His papers narrowly escaped two fires and were moved from place to place to avoid rumored FBI raids, Horowitz says. When FBI agents dressed as cable TV installers finally seized the files in 1975, Horowitz came up with an ingenious ploy to avoid being held in contempt while testifying before a grand jury that was investigating Leary’s 1970 prison escape.

Eventually the feds returned Leary’s files, and by 2010 they’d ended up in a storage facility in Livermore, California.

William Stingone, the library’s curator of manuscripts and archives made two trips there to comb through hundreds of boxes and decide if they were worth acquiring. “I didn’t know that much about Timothy Leary,” Stingone told me. “My upbringing was anything but psychedelic.”

But the material won him over. “What those boxes radiated was an enormous amount of enthusiasm, industry, and humanity. It became clear that the archive was alive and we had to have it.” (The library reportedly paid $900,000 for the archives; Leary’s estate donated a portion of the proceeds to the library to help pay for processing the collection).

Leary’s archives now join documents from George Washington, Herman Melville, Truman Capote and other literary and historical giants in the library’s holdings.

Leary may be best known for his role in the psychedelic movement of the ’60s, but in his later years, at the dawn of the internet age he became fascinated by the potential of technology to transform human communication (see the related gallery on video games and other software from Leary’s archives). He also became interested in life extension and space migration, which he discussed in an exchange of letters with astronomer Carl Sagan.

Leary’s main message ” and another one of his famous slogans ” was to get people to think for themselves and question authority, said Denis Berry, a trustee of his estate. It’s a message that’s still relevant today, Berry said. “Let’s get out of the rut we’re unconsciously following, and start thinking for ourselves and living the life we want to live.”

“The archive has the power to allow all of us to continue to engage with Timothy Leary and his life and his thought,” Stingone told partygoers at the opening reception. “In a way, Timothy Leary’s afterlife can begin.”
Wired gives an overview of psychedelic researcher Timothy Leary’s archive of written papers, research, and experiences. The ar
ticle points to the prominent of researchers and doctors that presented completed study results at Psychedelic Science 2013, and interviews MAPS Founder Rick Doblin about his studies of Leary’s early work and legacy. “Doblin says it’s not fair to blame the decades-long lull in psychedelic research entirely on Leary,” writes Greg Miller of Wired. “‘He deserves some condemnation, but he also made a fundamental contribution to the scientific study of psychedelics,’ Doblin said.”