First LSD hallucination: April 16, 1943

Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman isn’t sure what’s wrong with him, but he feels restless and dizzy enough to go home early on this Friday afternoon. At home, he lies down, then begins experiencing what he will later describe as a “not unpleasant, intoxicated-like condition characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination.”  He wonders if it has anything to do with the lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, he had accidentally gotten on his hands that day in the lab.

Hoffman had synthesized the drug five years earlier with the hope that it could treat respiratory diseases. It had not been successful in that capacity, so Hoffman, a chemist for Sandoz Pharmaceutical, stopped researching it. Now, to test his theory that the LSD may have had something to do with his strange reaction in the lab, he deliberately consumes more of the drug a few days later.

This time Hoffman’s experience is  more unsettling. He asks his lab assistant to escort him on his bike ride home, which is a wise choice because Hoffman’s anxiety keeps escalating. By the time he gets home, he’s convinced that his neighbor is an evil witch and that he is going insane. A doctor is called, but he can find nothing physically wrong with Hoffman, who then begins to take a turn for the better.  Here’s part of his description: “Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux ..."

Hoffman quickly came to the conclusion that LSD could be a powerful tool for treating people with psychiatric conditions, although he couldn’t imagine anyone using it for recreational purposes.  Sandoz agreed and patented LSD in 1947, marketing it to psychiatrists to give to their mentally ill patients. The pharmaceutical company also recommended that therapists take the drug so that they could better understand their patients.

During a 15-year period beginning in 1950, research on LSD and other hallucinogens generated over 1,000 scientific papers, plus several dozen books, and LSD was prescribed as treatment to over 40,000 patients, including the likes of movie star Cary Grant.  Many psychiatrists also began taking the drug recreationally and sharing it with friends.

At the same time, intelligence agencies, such as the CIA began studying LSD as a potential chemical weapon because, as one researcher put it: “It (LSD) is capable of rendering whole groups of people, including military forces, indifferent to their surroundings and situations, interfering with planning and judgment, and even creating apprehension, uncontrollable confusion and terror.”

Pressured by public officials who saw that LSD was spreading out into the general public, Sandoz stopped producing it in 1965. But it was too late. Endorsed by people like Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary, who encouraged American students to “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” LSD became a core component of the ‘60s counterculture. In response, the U.S. government banned the drug in 1966.

Research on LSD pretty much ended in 1980. Grant money had dried up because no one wanted to be associated with a drug that had been targeted by public officials and law enforcement agencies.

In March, 2014, however, almost 40 years since the last clinical trial on LSD, the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease published the results of a study in which 12 people in Switzerland, most of them terminal cancer patients, were given LSD as part of their therapy.  Researchers wanted to see if the drug could help them deal with their pending deaths. One of the patients, a 67-year-old man, reported that he met his long-dead, estranged father somewhere out in the cosmos, nodding in approval.

More history slices

The Twinkie invented: April 6, 1930

First artificial heart: April 4, 1969

First batch of Coca-Cola: March 29, 1886

Finally, antiseptic surgery: March 16, 1867

Flu pandemic begins: March 11, 1918