On the afternoon of Jan. 11, Albert Hofmann, the chemist who discovered LSD, had about a dozen friends and family up to his glass-walled home in the mountains near Basel, Switzerland, for a party. It was his 102nd birthday and, in an important sense, also a homecoming. Dr. Hofmann, who died last week, spent the latter part of his life consulting with scientists around the world who wanted to bring his “problem child,” as he called the drug, back into the lab to study as a therapeutic agent.
Not long before his last birthday, he learned that health officials in his native Switzerland had approved what will be the first known medical trial of LSD anywhere in more than 35 years — to test whether the drug can help relieve distress at end of life. “It was something to be there, in that house,” said Rick Doblin, president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit group that supports research into LSD and related compounds. “He was walking around the place, telling jokes, being a host. He seemed … I don’t know, peaceful somehow, comfortable to let the next generation carry on his spirit. And he was expressing how completely grateful he was that that we’d been able to restart LSD research — that his problem child had come home, had become a wonder child.” Most drugs that capture the imagination of the wider culture seem at first to soothe the unease or gloom of their times, like Valium in the 1970s or Prozac in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But lysergic acid diethylamide, the substance Dr. Hofmann accidentally ingested in 1943 while working at the Swiss drug firm Sandoz, did exactly the opposite. It inflamed people’s hopes and fears, powerfully so. LSD, it turns out, is one of the most potent consciousness-altering substances known to man; an amount the size of a grain of salt can induce swirls of emotion, and shimmering clear senses in which the ordinary becomes extraordinary, luminous, meaningful. It can infuse a person with creative energy or overwhelm the brain with a swarming feeling of loss and fear. Sometimes both: Even Dr. Hofmann had at least one bad trip, recalling in his autobiography, “Everything in the room spun around, and the familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forms.”
Looking back, scholars say, it’s hard to imagine that such a drug, once in circulation, could not have taken Western culture for a wild ride, especially given the forces at play in the postwar United States. “It was probably inevitable, and I think the reason is that the common denominator, the common ground shared by all the various groups who made use of LSD, was that they got instantly excited about it as potentiator of their own agenda, whatever that was,” said Martin A. Lee, co-author of “Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The C.I.A., the ’60s and Beyond.” “It’s a terrible phrase, but I think of LSD as a potentiator of possibilities. It just evoked these grandiose possibilities with people.” Scientists in the 1940s and 1950s, for instance, thought it might be the key to providing healing insight, a window on the soul, a way to transcend psychosis, mania, depression. Dr. Hofmann thought it could awaken a deeper awareness of mankind’s place in nature. About 1,000 studies crowd the medical literature of that era, many of them sloppy, a few tantalizing and some disastrous for the people being “treated” with an acid trip. The C.I.A. tested the drug as an aid to interrogation, a kind of truth serum. The Army modeled the possibility of using it as a madness gas, of dosing the enemy to gain quick advantage. And this was all before acid met the counterculture on Haight Street in the 1960s. But meet they did, and it was love at first sight.
Dr. Hofmann’s child was no hustler from a shotgun lab in Tijuana, after all, but a bourgeois revolutionary, born into establishment medicine and able to travel the world and enter societies from the top down, through their most hallowed institutions. The English novelist Aldous Huxley, who struck up a friendship with Dr. Hofmann, was one of the first prominent proponents of LSD use for personal transformation. Timothy Leary, LSD’s pied piper, was a Harvard professor whose public raptures over the drug were a strong cocktail of mystical and scientific jargon. Ken Kesey, founder of the proto-raves known as acid tests, was at age 30 already an acclaimed novelist, author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” He likened taking acid to “putting a tuning fork on your whole body.” Not that acid was a hard sell to young people in the early 1960s, at least to those who longed not only to shake free of mainstream suburban-corporate culture but also to transform it, and themselves. They weren’t looking for an angry fix but something far grander. “To put matters bluntly: the hippies were an attempt to push evolution, to jump the species toward a higher integration,” wrote Jay Stevens in his 1987 book, “Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream.” A joint is not going to get you there. Nor, in the end, did LSD. By 1966 a raft of toxic knockoffs were on the street, and the authorities recognized that, whatever its upside, acid had become part of a self-devouring drug culture that exposed many users to a poisonous menu of illicit drugs.
The government outlawed distribution of LSD, and research into its effects soon ground to a near halt. Where some saw a long-overdue crackdown on abuse, others saw an overreaction. “Once the drug illegalization crowd gets hold of it, that’s that,” said Alexander Shulgin, a former Dow chemist who discovered the effects of MDMA, or ecstasy, which has also been made a controlled substance. “People start talking about protecting little children, and worrying about whether someone’s going to jump out the window, and meanwhile we have these substances — MDMA and LSD — that may be of tremendous value in psychotherapy and couldn’t be explored.” They can now; several trials testing psychedelics are in the works, thanks in part to the steady example set by Dr. Hofmann. “I think people in this country, when they see a patient in pain, will not deny that person a medication just because the drug has abuse potential,” said Dr. John Halpern, a Harvard psychiatrist who is testing the effect of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in late-stage cancer patients. “LSD is always going to be a touchy subject but I think it’s kind of fallen back to earth.” The trip is over, the hangover gone, and the prodigal child arrived home, just in time to say goodbye.