Albert Hofmann and the Discovery of LSD
The association between psychedelic drugs and counterculture or youth movements is the driving force in the public perception of substances such as salvia, peyote, psilocybe ‘magic’ mushrooms and Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). The manner in which its usage is frequently depicted correlates its hallucinogenic properties to recreational abuse, ingestion during music festivals, the promotion of irrational or dangerous behavior, the persistence of negative neurological conditions and the association with the abuse of other recreational drugs. It is also understood in a limited context that such hallucinogenic substances relate to the spiritual practices and ritual traditions of a wide array of tribal or aboriginal cultures. However, a reflection on the life, work and philosophy of Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann stands as testament to the belief that psychedelic substances have a distinctly beneficial and fundamentally unique impact on human subjects that can be constructive in navigating psychological afflictions, overcoming traumatic experiences and producing intellectual epiphanies with curative potential concerning one’s emotional condition.
One of the most controversial discoverers of the 20th century, Hofmann came from decidedly humble beginnings. He was born to a modest family in Baden, Switzerland. His father’s work as a factory laborer and the absence of his formal education retained the family to fairly poor conditions. (Smith, 1) Nonetheless, Hofmann, who was born in 1906, would report happily on a childhood spent largely outdoors. Here, he would explore the ruins of local castles and roam the hillsides consuming the stimuli of nature. He would consistently report this to be one of his greatest pleasures and a source of the spirituality that encompassed his life but tended not to connect him to organized religion. (Smith, 1)
The impoverished state of Hofmann’s family stacked the odds against him in terms of furthering an education. However, the promise and perspicacity which had shown would incline his godfather to sponsor Hofmann at university. (Wikipedia, 1) Thus, he “went on to study chemistry at Zurich University because, he said, he wanted to explore the natural world at the level where energy and elements combine to create life. He earned his Ph.D. there in 1929, when he was just 23.” (Smith, 1) The ready enthusiasm and fast success that Hofmann experienced in his studies would be a significant presence in the revelations that were to come about in the years to follow.
Immediately following his time at university, he would accept a position that would allow him to work under Professor Arthur Stoll, whose work with natural substances rather than synthetic compounds matched Hofmann’s personal body of interest. It was thus that he came to join the pharmaceutical firm called Sandoz, working in a laboratory in his home town of Basel. On the instance at which he stumbled upon LSD by unintentionally experiencing its effects, he reports that “Time and again I hear or read that LSD was discovered by accident. This is only partly true. LSD came into being within a systematic research program, and the “accident” did not occur until much later: when LSD was already five years old, I happened to experience its unforeseeable effects in my own body – or rather, in my own mind.” (Hofmann, 36)
While working at the pharmaceutical labs of Sandoz, which is today known as Novartis, Hofmann would inadvertently experience the effects of LSD, becoming the first man to experience a synthesized psychedelic reaction in a laboratory setting. Hofmann had been commissioned by Sandoz to investigate the psychotropic benefits if any to the active agents in ergot, a fungus produced by rye grains. Known both for its poisonous capabilities and its connection to gangrene and blood constriction, ergot was also known to have some hallucinogenic properties, though these were not specifically the cause for interest therein. (Stone, 1) Based on the ability of ergot, in modest doses, to help ease labor pains for women during childbirth, Hofmann had begun to explore its psychotropic potential. It was thus that “Hofmann set out to find whether there might be further therapeutic applications for ergot derivatives. Indeed, he discovered some for Sandoz, including Hydergine, a medication that, among other things, enhances memory function in the elderly.” (Stone, 1)
However, it would be the derivative lysergic acid compound drawn from certain types of the ergot fungus that would lead to Hofmann’s most important discovery. For those who have attached cultural, philosophical, social, spiritual or personal values to the use of LSD, April 16th, 1943 is considered a landmark day, as this is recorded as the moment when Hofmann accidentally absorbed LSD in its liquid form through his fingertips and began to experience its uncommon and absorbing effects. (Stone, 1) After becoming dizzy and restless while at the laboratory, Hofmann would retreat to his home. Here, he recorded that “At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicatedlike condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination.” (Stone, 1)
This unexpected response, which Hofmann surmised was likely to have been connected to an accidental intake of the substance, resulted in Hofmann’s decision to experiment more intentionally with LSD. Therefore, three days later on April 19th, Hofmann would ingest 250 mg of the substance in an effort to confirm the nature of its effects and further to determine whether these effects had any practical value. Referred to in the historical timeline of acid’s evolution as Bicycle Day, this would be the first intentional psychedelic ‘trip,’ in which Hofmann would come to understand both the euphoric and positive aspects of the substance and the intensely powerful sensations and feelings which it can impose upon its user. (Stone, 1) On the day in question, Hofmann would begin to experience so overwhelming a sensation that he once again felt compelled, this time escorted by a neighbor who had been made aware of the self-induced experiment, to leave the Sandoz labs and return to his home. Hofmann traveled home by bicycle, hence the name by which the event is referred to in Hofmann’s most famous writing, 1979’s LSD: My Problem Child.
Upon returning home, Hofmann would experience an array of symptoms which he would also describe in his text, referring in detail to many of the observations and encounters that are commonly understood not as the hallucinogenic traits of LSD. Quite indeed, Hofmann would describe sensations that filled him with dread and unfamiliarity, but which would eventually give way to feelings of clarity and self-awareness. His description of the rigors of the experience are particularly compelling as they form something of a consistent basis for the negative claims of its impact and some of the problematic behaviors to which this impact would give rise in later recreational users. To the point, Hofmann would tell of his return home that “his surroundings had now transformed themselves in more terrifying ways. Everything in the room spun around, and the familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forms. They were in continuous motion, animated, as if driven by an inner restlessness. The lady next door, whom I scarcely recognized, brought me milk – in the course of the evening I drank more than two liters. She was no longer Mrs. R., but rather a malevolent, insidious witch with a colored mask.” (Hofmann, 36)
The sense of fear and the dark imagery that appeared to Hofmann correlated to his unfamiliarity with the symptoms of the substance and his uncertainty over whether or not he had imposed any harm upon himself by ingesting it. These sensations coalesced violently to send Hofmann on the course for what is commonly referred to in the recreational usage of LSD as a ‘bad trip.’ Here, the intense emotional experience of the substance which may open an individual to great insight, revelation and fanciful intoxication can similarly magnify the seeming significance of negative perceptions, reflections and perspectives. So would Hofmann indicate that even more than the decidedly threatening connotation of those things which he perceived visually would be the overwhelming personal reflection and the repulsion which this also seemed to stimulate in him. As Hofmann would detail in his recollection of the first experiment, “even worse than these demonic transformations of the outer world, were the alterations that I perceived in myself, in my inner being. Every exertion of my will, every attempt to put an end to the disintegration of the outer world and the dissolution of my ego, seemed to be wasted effort.” (Hofmann, 36) Here is elaborated something of the danger to one’s psychological orientation in the consumption and endurance of the psychedelic experience.
So when in the future when LSD had been adopted as a recreational drug by the so-called ‘hippie’ movement, even in spite of his longstanding support of the substance for further experimentation and the consideration of its beneficial properties, Hofmann considered this to be a dangerous and unstudied distortion in the ideas which he had accommodated to synthesize the substance in the first place. According to an article published in the Telegraph (2008), Hofmann deeply lamented the misuse of a substance which he had initially come across when attempting to synthesize respiratory assistive medication and which he had come to view as possessing potentially beneficial properties in psychiatric care. To that end, throughout the course of his life “he remained convinced that the drug had the potential to counter the psychological problems induced by ‘materialism, alienation from nature through industrialisation and increasing urbanisation, lack of satisfaction in professional employment in a mechanised, lifeless working world, ennui and purposelessness in wealthy, saturated society, and lack of a religious, nurturing, and meaningful philosophical foundation of life’.” (Telegraph, 1) To Hofmann’s view, many of the psychological problems associated with the detachment imposed by modernity could be addressed by guided use of a substance that caused reflection, insight and self-awareness otherwise largely inaccessible.
It was through what was for Hofmann an unwanted combination of premature commercialization and the proliferation which this allowed into the underground market that would cause LSD to earn its dubious reputation and its relationship to recreational rather than psychiatric users. Accordingly, Sandoz would immediately jump on the opportunity to make money off of a substance which was not subjected to full trial examination and labeled its sample form as Delysid. (Telegraph, 1) Widely distributing samples to psychiatric researchers for evaluation and eventual proliferation, Sandoz hoped to gain insight into the greatest prospects for its use. And indeed, “by 1965 more than 2,000 papers had been published offering hope for a range of conditions from drug and alcohol addiction to mental illnesses of various kinds. But the fact that the chemical was cheap and easy to make left it open to abuse, and from the late 1950s onwards, promoted by Dr. Timothy Leary and others, LSD became the recreational drug of choice for western youth.” (Telegraph, 1)
Just as the counterculture movement had begun to gain some political and ideological identity and visibility, so too had its association with recreational substances like marijuana and alcohol begun to establish a dominant image. When the implications of the psychedelic experience seemed to resonate with the philosophical and spiritual goals of this movement, LSD became a natural bedfellow. This was, however, a resonance that Hofmann rejected, even famously voicing to Timothy Leary his stringent objection to the fact that its use had been so energetically championed for the youth of America. (Telegraph, 1) Hofmann had argued that this mode of usage was not intended and could have grave psychological consequences.
The public instead viewed it as a pattern with potentially grave sociological consequences, with a campaign mounted against LSD by America’s moral hygienists. Particularly as the use of LSD became affiliated with resistance to the War in Vietnam and participation in Civil Rights protests, America’s lawmakers would begin to characterize this as a substance which contributed to acts of wanton criminality, of general mob related lawlessness and of hallucinogenic acts of irrational or self-destructive delusion. Hofmann recognized that the public perception of LSD was, in its increased proliferation and misuse, becoming both misunderstood and recognized for some of its more threatening properties. It was to this understanding that he owed his belief that the substance was never intended for recreational purposes and was certainly not advisable to all individuals. This balance is contrasted by the full-blown reactionary obstruction to its further examination by government authorities. As the Telegraph would report, “an outbreak of moral panic, combined with a number of accidents involving people jumping to their deaths off high buildings in the belief that they could fly, led governments around the world to ban LSD. Research also showed that the drug, taken in high doses and in inappropriate settings, often caused panic reactions. For certain individuals, a bad trip could be the trigger for full-blown psychosis.” (Telegraph, 1)
Indeed, the psychological capabilities of LSD are not to be taken lightly, and Hofmann believed that its potential benefits were more likely to be realized without the potentially traumatizing negative delusions of the experience when used under the guidance of a therapist and accompanied with such calming or centering activities as the practice of meditation. The delicate nature of patients with psychiatric needs especially underlines the sensibility with which Hofmann wished to approach LSD and predicates the disappointment he felt over its negative perception and the outright legal hostility with which it was treated. The potential benefits of the substance and its remarkable and uncommon properties suggested to its discoverer that LSD was neither a substance to be simplified as had Sandoz, nor to be feared, as had the government, the mainstream public and those in the psychiatric community who chose not to consider its potential benefits. These shortsighted actions would lead to its illegality and the consequent portrayal of LSD as an insidious substance to be noted only for its correlation to bizarre, irrational and dangerous behavior. Naturally, this would also lead to a condition within which the exploration of its effects and properties is now only conducted in fully independent settings by those driven for recreational or personal, rather than scientific or psychiatric, reasons to use LSD.
The Benefits of Hofmann’s Discovery:
This points us toward a consideration of the benefits potentially represented by LSD, which have been largely obscured by the somewhat strict association now between LSD and the counterculture movement. Though he objected to the behaviors that justified this association, Hofmann never relented on his centering view of LSD.
The position that Hofmann held on his own deeply controversial revelation was fundamentally positive, but never without a full awareness of its implications when misused. Quite to the point, the man who lived to be 102 years of age would nonetheless remain an active supporter of the substance and a tireless part of the community around which its research had expanded across the second half of the 20th century. To this point, Hofmann would release the statement on the 50th anniversary of his famous “Bicycle Day” underscoring his continued dedication to the positive properties of LSD. Hofmann would declare to his supporters in the research, chemistry, philosophy and psychiatric movements, “you, my dear friends, and millions all over the world who now commemorate the 50th birthday of ergot’s child, we all testify gratefully that we got valuable help on the way to what Aldous Huxley said is the end and the ultimate purpose of human life — enlightenment, beatific vision, love. I think all these joyful testimonies of invaluable help by LSD should be enough to convince the health authorities, finally, of the nonsense of the prohibition of LSD and of similar psychedelics.” (HF, 1)
To Hofmann’s perception, the prohibition on such substances was a reactionary conservative approach to the misuse observed amongst those in the counterculture movement of the 1960s. The recreational emphasis here placed on the substance and its correlation to protest movements and antiestablishment organizations would politicize its perception in the public, producing a demonizing effect which would be used to ban its usage. While Hofmann did not sympathize with the manner in which it had been adopted by the counter-culture movement, he did perceive that this usage was at least entitled and that legal obstruction to this usage was philosophically misguided and driven by a fundamental misunderstanding of LSD itself.
Indeed, the long life and great social and intellectual success of Hofmann himself reflects quite problematically upon the perspective held by mainstream lawmakers on the subject. The perception and propaganda-based argument that LSD is a strictly dangerous substance which does contain sufficient beneficial properties to be protected from illegality is undermined by Hofmann’s own biography. His sentiments on the subject would reinforce the case, with Hofmann frequently recognizing the need for caution and discretion in the manner and motive which accompany its usage. Still, Hofmann experimented aggressively with the substance himself as both a matter of professional study and personal exploration. According to an obituary published in the New York Times at the time of his passing in 2008, “took LSD hundreds of times, but regarded it as a powerful and potentially dangerous psychotropic drug that demanded respect. More important to him than the pleasures of the psychedelic experience was the drug’s value as a revelatory aid for contemplating and understanding what he saw as humanity’s oneness with nature. That perception, of union, which came to Dr. Hofmann as almost a religious epiphany while still a child, directed much of his personal and professional life.” (Smith, 1)
Clearly then, he was deeply biased in support of the constructive use of LSD and at least the objective scientific consideration of its prospective benefits to psychiatric treatment courses. But this would not come about spontaneously and simply as a result of his accidental first psychedelic foray. Instead, the lifelong exploration into hallucinogenic or psychedelic substances that Hofmann would undertake would be guided by many instances in history where groups and populations have recorded without scientific recognition the euphoric and sometimes divinely connoted experiences produced by ingestion. Though Hofmann’s substance would be synthesized, it would mimic some of the properties which had historically been found in the aforementioned Ergot, in salvia or ‘diviner’s sage,’ and most notably in psilocybe. Also known as magic mushrooms in popular culture, these would occupy much of Hofmann’s scientific investigation following the revelations of LSD.
This investigation and its connection to a history of usage would strengthen his argument in support of the spiritual and emotional opportunities in its use. In his 1978 text The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secrete of the Mysteries, Hofmann would describe a time “long before our ancestors knew how to write, when those ancestors must have regarded a mushroom as a divinity or quasi-divinity. We knew not which mushroom(s) nor why. In the days of Early Man his whole world was shot through with religious feeling and the unseen powers held him in thrall. Our sacred ‘mushroom’ must have been wondrous indeed, evoking awe and adoration, fear, yes, even terror.” (Hofmann et al., 26)
This not only captures the strange balance found in the drug — or perhaps more accurately stated as the yin and yang forces within each man’s psyche — but it further reinforces a connectivity between man, nature and all of living history that forms the foundation not just for Hofmann’s approach to LSD but also for his understanding of the world at large. The spirituality which impacted him throughout his life and which perhaps encouraged the centrality of nature in his own exploration of LSD would lead Albert Hofmann to pursue a religiosity tied entirely to the earth. As recorded in an article published in The New York Times marking the occasion of his 100th birthday, “As the years accumulate behind him, Mr. Hofmann’s conversation turns ever more insistently around one theme: man’s oneness with nature and the dangers of an increasing inattention to that fact.” (Smith1, 1)
For Hofmann, the preoccupation with naturally occurring phenomena and their ability to influence man’s connection to nature itself would direct his profession, lead to the revelation of LSD and should be considered a preemptive consideration to the decision to experience LSD. The article in the Times would recount an anecdote told numerous times in the countless biographical records of Hofmann’s contributions, denoting that “his bright eyes flash with the recollection of a mystical experience he had on a forest path more than 90 years ago in the hills above Baden, Switzerland. The experience left him longing for a similar glimpse of what he calls ‘a miraculous, powerful, unfathomable reality.'” (Smith1, 1) This overwhelming and completely spontaneous sensation of the overwhelming beauty and connectivity of nature lends some understanding to the later experiences which dictated to Hofmann that LSD was inherently positive in its nature. Its capacity to inspire this same euphoric consonance with nature would suggest an innately spiritual implication to his discovery, and one which may be reinforced by the very same reflected in cultures throughout the course of human history.
Such accounts for the immovably positive but sensible perspective in which Hofmann wished to see LSD beheld. Even in spite of his objection to its recreational use and his belief that this led to its having been generally discredited, Hofmann would at points in his writing and career seemed to recognized the inherent likelihood of this usage given the remarkable experiences reported by its intake. Accordingly, in one of the latest existing demonstrations of his interest in the substance, Hofmann had been reported in 2007 to have contacted Apple founder and innovator Steve Jobs by written correspondence. Here, the 101-year-old chemist would approach Jobs with an understanding the Jobs had experimented liberally in the past with LSD and thus could be a source for discussion on its positive properties. This correspondence would be sent based on the fact that Jobs “has in the past praised LSD’s influence on his creative thinking.” (Nosowitz, 1)
In addition to functioning as a positive example of the properties potential in its usage, the case of Jobs would also demonstrate that Hofmann was somewhat soft on the issue of its recreational use. While he expressed concern regarding its use by those unprepared for its psychological or practical consequences, he also shows a discretion here insofar as recreational use does have the potential to be beneficial for those with the psychological stability to absorb its insights safely. Moreover, it demonstrates the desire on Hofmann’s part even at the very end of his life and in reflection of the many associations attached to LSD to continue to advocate for a more objective receipt of its insights and properties. Quite to the point and as something of a famous final request on the subject, he asked Jobs to assist him in turning his ‘problem child’ into a ‘wonder child.’ (Nosowitz, 1) It may be deduced that Hofmann saw the endorsement of a respected and accomplished figure such as Jobs as a mainstream source of credibility for his claims and defenses concerning LSD.
Though Hofmann wished to see LSD held up to greater scientific and empirical light, he himself was a man of philosophical passion as much as scientific interest. Therefore, the positive implications of LSD cannot be reduced in his characterization to simply psychiatric medicinal imperatives. For Hofmann, though the prompting for experimentation was scientific, his usage was not in response to any psychiatric need and must be considered at points to have been recreational in nature. Certainly, Hofmann does not denounce the degree to which he enjoyed the experience at many points in his life. He would record another oft-stated experience of childlike wonderment when on the substance that related to the same revelations had as a child. In his own account of the first experience with LSD, Hofmann indicates that “mmediately, I recognized it as the same experience I had had as a child. I didn’t know what caused it, but I knew that it was important.” (Smith1, 1)
Indeed, this latter sentiment may also be seen as the fundamental point to take from Hofmann’s view on LSD. The substance is indeed controversial, and its effects indeed varied. Hofmann of course possessed the emotional, intellectual and psychological wherewithal to confront the insights and egoistic critiques to which the drug would subject him. But this is not a statement which can be made on the behalf of all prospective recreational users. Therefore, the dangers of LSD usage are real and can in the wrong individual provoke terrible psychological consequences, and even psychoses that can be somewhat incurable. Though some of this may be provoked by over-use of the substance, it is also the case that those who are vulnerable to an emotional instability or psychological unsoundness may be particularly susceptible to the worst of possible outcomes from its use. Most commonly though, those not prepared for its consequences will simply endure an emotionally torturous duration of intoxication, with relief coming from its passage through the system.
This, however, as much as anything, is the cause for Hofmann’s lifelong insistence that its positive properties be honestly and objectively explored. The failure to do so and the prohibition placed upon LSD denotes not that abuse can be prevented but that those interested in its potentially positive properties are unable to pursue these in a constructive or safe environment.
To Albert Hofmann, the synthesis of LSD was provided for by the fundamental resources availed by nature. Thus, its effects and properties are to be regarded as natural and available for our investigation. However, as with all aspects of nature, LSD is to be respected even as it is experienced. To the father of modern psychedelics, this is a respect that has neither been shown by the recklessness of its recreational users or by the narrow-minded fear of its enemies. Nonetheless, his discovery is one of history’s more notorious Pandora’s Boxes. The advent of LSD would initiate a phase of experimentation that whether for recreational, personal or spiritual reasons, continues its proliferation today, to both the positive and negative ends which marked Hofmann’s lucid understanding of his problem child substance.
Hofmann, A. (1979). LSD-My Problem Child. MAPS.
Hofmann, A.; Wasson, R.G.; Ruck, C.A.P.; Smith, H. & Webster, P. (2008). The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secrete of the Mysteries: 30th Anniversary. North Atlantic Books.
Hofmann Foundation (HF). (1999). The Albert Hofmann Foundation. Hofmann.org.
Nosowitz, D. (2009). LSD Creator Albert Hofmann to Steve Jobs: ‘How Was LSD Useful To You?” Gizmodo. Online at http://gizmodo.com/5310549/lsd-creator-albert-hofmann-to-steve-jobs-how-was-lsd-useful-to-you
Smith, C.S. (2008). Albert Hofmann, the Father of LSD, Dies at 102. The New York Times.
Smith1, C.S. (2006). Nearly 100, LSD’s Father Ponders His ‘Problem Child.’ The New York Times.
Stone, R. (2008). Albert Hofmann: Day Tripper. The New York Times.
Telegraph. (2008). Albert Hofmann: Obituary. Telegraph.co.uk.
Wikipedia. (2009). Albert Hofmann. Wikimedia, Ltd. Inc.
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