The discovery of LSD
In 1943, in the beautiful Swiss city of Basel on the banks of the Rhine, a fresh faced and talented young chemist returned to a compound he had first synthesised 5 years previously. Back in 1938 he had been tasked with investigating semi synthetic variants of a naturally occurring fungal alkaloid, with the aim of improving upon it’s medicinal analeptic properties. The 25th substance in this series he had synthesised had really piqued his interest. It seemed to have the most peculiar side effect in animals, causing them to become very agitated. However, for various reasons, the lab had decided it did not warrant further investigation.
But there was something about this particular substance – it stuck in the young chemists mind, shrouded in what he would later call a, ‘peculiar presentiment’. For half a decade it waited, lodged in Albert’s mind, biding its' time, awaiting the return of his attention and curiosity. That day came on Friday 16th April, 1943.
No one knows quite how, (maybe skin contact, maybe a drop of it on his lips) but on that day, whilst working with the solution, this normally meticulous young gentleman managed to accidentally absorb a tiny amount of it into his system.
The lab was that of Sandoz chemicals, the gentleman in question was Albert Hoffman, and the substance he absorbed was LSD.
Shortly after this incident (and not knowing what was happening to him), Albert was forced to retire early from work and head straight home. Ever the scientist, he recorded his experience of that afternoon;
“On arriving home, I lay down and sank into a kind of drunkenness which was not unpleasant and which was characterised by extreme activity of imagination. As I lay in a dazed condition with my eyes closed (I experienced daylight as disagreeably bright) there surged upon me an uninterrupted stream of fantastic images of extraordinary plasticity and vividness and accompanied by an intense, kaleidoscope-like play of colours. This condition gradually passed off after about two hours.”
He didn’t know it at the time, But young Mr Hoffman had just accidentally experienced the first recorded LSD trip.
That was a Friday afternoon. Pondering this event over the weekend, Albert concluded the following:
“The nature and the course of this extraordinary disturbance raised my suspicions that some exogenic intoxication may have been involved and that the Iysergic acid diethylamide with which I had been working that afternoon could have been responsible…. I could not imagine how this compound could have accidentally found its way into my body in a sufficient quantity to produce such phenomena. ..In order to get to the root of the matter, I decided to conduct some experiments on myself with the substance in question.”
So on the following Monday 19th April, this careful and responsible scientist prepared the lowest dose of LSD he thought could possibly have an effect. The dose he delivered to himself was
a quarter of a milligram.
He could be forgiven for thinking that he was being very cautious with dosage…
…He would later discover he had actually overshot the average effective dose by a factor of five.
At 4.20 pm on April the 19th he ingested a tiny amount of the tasteless solution. Half an hour later he wasn’t feeling a thing. He wrote in his journal:
“4.50 pm no trace of any effect.”
But , then over the next 10 minutes, things started to really change. By 5.00pm he was just about able to write the following;
“…slight dizziness, unrest, difficulty in concentration, visual disturbances, marked desire to laugh...”
It was then Albert realised that he should get himself home. But this was wartime Europe, and as such the use of cars was restricted.
He was forced to enlist the help of a laboratory assistant and he got himself home by the only means available – a bicycle.
During the cycle, the full force and profundity of the experience were starting to bear down on him and his bicycle trip turned into a psychedelic one.
“While we were cycling home, however, it became clear that the symptoms were much stronger than the first time. I had great difficulty in speaking coherently, my field of vision swayed before me, and objects appeared distorted like images in curved mirrors. I had the impression of being unable to move from the spot, although my assistant told me afterwards that we had cycled at a good pace.... Once I was at home the physician was called.”
He did not fare much better when he got home.
“The dizziness and sensation of fainting became so strong at times that I could no longer hold myself erect, and had to lie down on a sofa. … 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 relentlessness. 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 … 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 a wasted effort. A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind, and soul. … I was seized by the dreadful fear of going insane. I was taken to another world, another place, another time. My body seemed to be without sensation, lifeless, strange. Was I dying?”
If you have no experience context or knowledge of psychedelic ‘trips’, you would be forgiven at this point for thinking such harrowing experiences are best avoided at all costs. Such a recollection sounds like it would be easier to instrumentalise psychedelics as a perfect instrument of torture than as a potential tool for healing. However that is only half the story. The arrival of the aforementioned physician marked a watershed in poor alberts experience,
“The horror softened and gave way to a feeling of good fortune and gratitude, the more normal perceptions and thoughts returned, and I became more confident that the danger of insanity was conclusively past. Now, little by little, I could begin to enjoy the unprecedented colours and plays of shapes that persisted behind my closed eyes. Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me….”
By the time Tuesday morning had dawned Albert was in an altogether different state of mind, one characterised by a type of positive afterglow. He writes;
“Everything glistened and sparkled in a fresh light. The world was as if newly created. All my senses vibrated in a condition of highest sensitivity, which persisted for the entire day.”
In doing all this, Hoffman had demonstrated a type of dogged and courageous curiosity, but perhaps his real genius was in his grasping the potential that such experiences held for lessening psychological suffering.
Prior to such a finding the predominant and prevailing school of thought was that certain mental illnesses could be entirely explained away by disturbances in the psyche – that is, they had nothing at all to do with brain chemistry. Albert however postulated that the extremely high potency of LSD cast doubt on this:
If such infinitesimally small amounts of an ingested substance could cause profound psychic derangement, could it not be entirely possible the body itself was capable of producing undetectable traces of psychoactive substances that might produce similar psychic disturbances?
This theory of a potential biochemical underpinning to certain aspects of mental suffering paved the way for a paradigm shift in how they came to be treated - but more on that later.
In his prolific and astounding career Albert Hoffman went on to make more important discoveries, and he lived to be a centenarian. The photographs of the last epochs his of life have a ‘Bilbo Baggins-esque’ quality of vitality and his face beams with a type of contentedness that I hope I am not projecting - I should like that people who have made significant and hard won contributions to the betterment of humanity experience a constant background ‘hum’ of positive self regard.
Hoffman anthropomorphised LSD in an autobiography as his, ‘problem child’ . This extraordinary and profound infant was indeed born into war, became the subject of turbulent counter cultural adolescence and wound up criminalised in adulthood. This coming April LSD will ostensibly celebrate its’ 76th birthday.