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oh, the wheels on the bike go ’round and ’round

April 19, 2011

You might be hard-pressed to remember exactly what you were doing 68 years ago

on this date.  I was still in the ether, awaiting the call to become a twinkle in my

father’s eye.  But Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, researching the fungus ergot for

Sandoz labs, decided to take another look at a lysergic acid he had created in 1938.

On April 16, 1943, while resynthesizing the drug, he accidentally absorbed some

through his fingertips, experiencing a “not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition”.

Three days later he intentionally ingested 250 micrograms of LSD, estimating that

to be a threshhold dose.  Twenty mikes would have been plenty.  Within an hour,

he was having  intense perceptual changes.

Hofmann asked his assistant to help him home.  They were on bicycles because

motor vehicles were banned in wartime Switzerland.  After an anxiety-riddled

ride, during which he feared he’d poisoned himself, his doctor reassured him he

was fine except for his huge dilated pupils.  He fell into a mellow mood where:

          “. . . little by little I could begin to enjoy the unprecedented colors and

            plays of shapes that existed behind my closed eyes.  Kaleideoscopic,

            fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening

            then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored

            fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux . . .”

That was some great ergot derivative.

LSD had made its way across the Pond by the early 50’s.  It was warmly welcomed.

 By mid-decade, major U.S. medical centers were researching it.  Results encouraged

psychotherapists to use it on clients.  Time magazine ran 6 positive stories on LSD

from ’54 to ’59.

It was particularly well-received by author Aldous Huxley (Brave New World, Ape

and Essence).  After a session with mescaline given to him by Humphrey Osmond,

who coined the term psychedelic, Huxley wrote the classic psychonaut’s primer,

The Doors of Perception.  He graduated to LSD and wrote many more books, essays

and articles.  Stricken with cancer, he took the drug on his deathbed.

As larger than life characters like Al Hubbard, Timothy Leary, and Ken Kesey put

more focus on LSD, the mainstream media ran sensationalist stories that turned

public opinion against the drug.  Bogus claims that acid could cause birth defects,

or that users staring at the sun went blind, overtook rational discourse. When rock

stars, widely-known to be the spawn of the Devil, started espousing its use, it was

made illegal in the mid-60’s in the U.S., mid-70’s in Canada.

That’s regrettable.  Somewhere between the total embrace of LSD by some and total

demonization by others is an impressive bank of studies that shows its therapeutic

promise.  I don’t advocate its widespread use in such a fearful time, but I don’t see

the value of jailing someone who willingly, healthily takes that chance.

Hofmann eventually referred to LSD as his “problem child”.  But as he pedalled his

bike home exactly 68 years ago today, he couldn’t possibly have known how his

creation would resonate through history.


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