From Humble Chemist to Father of the Psychedelic Trip

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Albert Hofmann spent his life advocating for LSD, a drug he first created — and which is now experiencing a renaissance.

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The call came from the Nobel Prize committee for Dr. Albert Hofmann. It was the mid-1960s, and the Swiss chemist was under consideration for an unusual compound he’d been the first to synthesize. But the mid-’60s were also when full-scale panic over the effects of LSD had taken hold in the wake of Timothy Leary’s iconic appeal to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” By 1968, possession would be made illegal in the U.S., and Hofmann would never get that Nobel.

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Dr. Albert Hofmann once said that LSD has extraordinary value when used in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, but when used by today’s youth, it is like putting an “atom bomb” in the hands of amateurs.

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Hofmann, born in Baden in 1906, began his career as a hardcore scientist, working in the pharmaceutical division of Basel-based Sandoz Laboratories. In 1943, while researching lysergic acid derivatives, he accidentally dosed himself with LSD — then intentionally dosed himself with LSD — and spent the rest of his life hoping the drug would find a respected place in science and realize its therapeutic potential in the world.

“I think he would have been a different person without discovering LSD,” says Lucius Werthmüller, a consciousness researcher and co-author of the Hofmann biography Mystic Chemist. He also knew Hofmann, who was a friend of Werthmüller’s parents, before he died in 2008. “He always said that science is not everything, science cannot explain the real heavy questions.” While Hofmann and his discovery were celebrated by countercultural movements like the hippies, Hofmann was never a part of the recreational drug scene and was critical of those he believed were misusing the drug.

When Hofmann first synthesized LSD in 1938, the only drug that offered similar hallucinogenic effects was the Western hemisphere’s mescaline. Used for thousands of years in its naturally occurring form found in the peyote cactus, mescaline was not synthesized until 1918 and used largely by writers and artists as a mind expander. At Sandoz Laboratories, as part of a program examining medicinal properties of plants for use in pharmaceuticals, Hofmann came across a compound then known as LSD-25, which he thought could help as a circulatory and respiratory stimulant. The company thought the substance held no interest, so he abandoned it … only to revisit it five years later, convinced there was more to unlock.

Hofmann was deeply dismayed that people viewed his “problem child,” as he called the drug, as a potential danger to humankind.

Famously, there was: Though no one is sure how he ingested the LSD, some of it must have touched his eye, mouth or even his skin, because on that April afternoon in 1943, he started to feel what no other human had ever felt: the psychedelic effects of LSD, otherwise known as a full-blown acid trip. He described two hours of a stimulated imagination, intense hallucinations and restlessness. Two days later, he took charge, deliberately ingesting about 250 micrograms of the drug before bicycling home, escorted by a lab assistant. In Hofmann’s book, LSD: My Problem Child, he describes his feelings on that ride as “delirious, bewildered,” while his surroundings blurred and he became convinced that his neighbor was, in fact, a witch. “The substance with which I had wished to experiment,” he wrote, “had vanquished me.” April 19 is still commemorated yearly as Bicycle Day by LSD enthusiasts.

Hofmann may have been the first scientist to take LSD, but he certainly wasn’t the last. Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick has said he was under the influence while working to identify DNA’s molecular structure; Richard Feynman also experimented with the drug; and in his autobiography, Kary Mullis states he would likely not have reached his Nobel-winning breakthroughs on genetic fingerprinting if it weren’t for taking LSD.

Despite those great leaps forward, Hofmann was deeply dismayed that people viewed his “problem child,” as he called the drug, as a potential danger to humankind. In the public imagination, LSD was a drug for hedonists and rebels, and there were rumors that it could cause birth defects or alter DNA. Still, Hofmann was steadfast in advocating for LSD as a potentially powerful tool in psychiatry — a “medicine for the soul,” he once said, that could counter some of the problems associated with modern life. He wanted the world to open its mind, reconnect with nature and reject materialism and self-destructive tendencies, and he believed the drug could help.

With his death at 102 of a heart attack, Hofmann never lived to see what Werthmüller describes as a “psychedelic renaissance,” but it’s finally happening. In 2009, Britain’s chief drug adviser was fired after publishing a report supporting the use of psychedelics in research, but the controversy started a conversation that has seen a growing chorus of researchers calling for more inquiry into LSD and similar drugs.

Microdosing — taking 10 micrograms of LSD, too small an amount to produce hallucinations but reputed to boost creativity and productivity — has become common in some circles, including, Werthmüller says, in Silicon Valley. But OZY doesn’t know anything about that. Some doctors even believe LSD could be re-legalized in the U.S. within the next decade. It would realize a longtime dream of Hofmann’s, who was the first to sign a 2006 resolution to the World Health Organization asking that the drug be made legal for research. “My problem child,” he said at the time, “has become a wonder child.”

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