In 1943, a Swiss chemist in Basel working for the pharmaceutical company Sandoz took a jar down from a shelf in his laboratory. Let’s call him Al. The jar had already been sitting there for several years, left over from research they had been doing on the fungus ergot for the treatment of contractions in pregnancy, but had found the results to be unsatisfactory.
It was extremely uncommon, almost unheard of, for a chemist to open up a substance for research that had already been abandoned, but this was 1943, the rest the world was busy killing each other in a world war, and Switzerland was neutral, so everyone had a lot of extra time on their hands. Al decided, as an experiment, to further synthesize the preparation. Later that day he felt “woozy” and had to sit down. His consciousness felt distinctly altered. He realized that he must have had got a tiny amount on his finger, and attributed this to the cause of his altered consciousness. So Al embarked upon an experiment. He decided to ingest a little bit more of the substance and see what happened. Bear in mind that pharmaceuticals are usually taken in milligrams: thousandths of a gram. For example, when you ingest vitamin C as ascorbic acid, you probably take a dose of 500 mg to 1000 mg, without any wooziness. Al wanted to be extremely cautious, so he took 250 micrograms, a quarter of one milligram, or 1/4000 of a gram. With any other substance known to pharmacology, this would have had absolutely no effect whatsoever.
In fact, it had an extremely strong effect that lasted for three days. In the first phase (probably because even this small dosage was still too high), he experienced “everything in my field of vision was distorted as if seen in a curved mirror,” but as it settled it down, “a sensation of well-being and renewed life flowed through me.” The entire experience lasted for three days. Al was amazed, shocked, intrigued, and a little afraid. He lowered the dose even more, and then tested this on his secretary and other colleagues working at the pharmaceutical lab. Everyone experienced dramatic changes in consciousness, which often included feelings of deep insight and powerful self-reflection, as though “their eyes had been washed clean and they were seeing for the first time the beauty of the world.”
This newly discovered substance was tested on animals, and then on humans in a clinical setting. It was determined to have useful psychiatric applications, so it was patented by Sandoz, and sold under the name Delysid. Over the next 20 years Delysid underwent huge amounts of research in more than 30 countries. It was widely used in a psychiatric setting, where in a controlled environment psychiatric patients would be temporarily alleviated of feelings of low self-worth, and could see their life in a fresh way and make new choices. It was used in prisons, where one dose reduced recidivism from an average of over 80% to an average of under 20%. It was tested by the Army. In addition to its application to treat mental illness, Delysid was also used by artists, musicians, and scientists, and was found to greatly enhance creativity. Among it’s advocates were Cary Grant, Arthur Koestler, William Burroughs and countless others.
In the early 1960s, a group of Harvard professors became interested in Delysid. They had already been exploring similar substances from organic sources. An entire department was set up to investigate the impact of such substances, now known as entheogens, not just on treating mental illness, but as a gateway to accessing more integrated states of the human brain.
One such young researcher, then at Stanford, was a graduate student named James Fadiman, who later went on to found the Institute for Transpersonal Psychology. He is the author of The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, and is widely regarded today as one of the greatest living authorities on entheogens.
Back in those days,” he recalls,“ we conducted a study with senior scientists. The prerequisite for getting in was that you had to have been working on a specific problem for a couple of months and failed. These were people who made their living solving difficult problems and weren’t familiar with failure, so they were very intellectually and emotionally invested. We told them that we were going to set up a situation where they would have a better chance at solving these challenging problems. We gave 100µg of this substance. Within a few hours, out of 48 unsolved problems, we had 44 solutions. We also gave them traditional creativity psychological tests and every participant improved. Not only did the subjects discover solutions in a few hours, but they reportedly remained more creative for a period of 4 to 8 weeks; there was an afterglow that slowly diminished.”
There are volumes of studies like this, unparalleled in pharmaceutical research before or since.
In 1963 all this came to an abrupt halt. Delysid was made illegal, along with many other similar substances, both for psychiatric and experimental use in the United States, and the rest of the world soon followed suit.
The Swiss scientist in this story was, as you may have guessed, Albert Hoffman, and his “problem child drug” is Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, abbreviated as LSD-25.