A drug which became synonymous with the “turn on, tune in, drop out” counterculture of the 1960s was first synthesised 80 years ago today.
Lysergic acid diethylamide – known as LSD – was first made by Swiss scientist Albert Hoffmann on November 16th, 1938. He synthesised the drug from lysergic acid, a chemical derived from the ‘ergot’ group of fungi.
Working at Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland, Hoffmann (pictured right), was part of a research team looking for products derived from the ergot fungi which could be used in medicine. Although he was the first to successfully synthesise LSD, it was only one of many such experiments and its peculiar properties remained unknown for some time.
In fact, it was five years later when Hoffmann was reviewing his earlier work that he accidentally ingested a small quantity of his LSD chemical by absent-mindedly touching his hand to his mouth or nose. After becoming a little dizzy and strangely restless, he went home and laid down on a couch, where he began experiencing profound effects including, in his words, “an extremely stimulated imagination” resulting in “an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colours”.
Hoffmann was experiencing the first ‘LSD trip’, which wore off after about two hours. Intrigued by the experience and keen to discover if it could be replicated, three days later he intentionally ingested 250 micrograms of LSD, beginning to feel similar effects while riding home on his bike and this time finding them much stronger than he had anticipated.
While the drug was clearly powerful, it was hard to think of a specific medical use for it. Instead Sandoz Laboratories, after further research, decided to patent and sell it as a kind of ‘psychiatric panacea’ with a wide range of claimed benefits. Introducing it in 1947, it hailed LSD as “a cure for everything from schizophrenia to criminal behaviour, sexual perversions and alcoholism”.
In the 1950s the American CIA began secret experiments to assess other possible uses for LSD. In a program codenamed “Project MKULTRA”, LSD was administered to CIA employees, military personnel, doctors, other government agents, prostitutes, mentally ill patients and members of the general public in order to study their reactions. In many cases it was administered without the subjects’ knowledge or consent.
In 1963, Sandoz’s 20-year patents on LSD expired, meaning other pharmaceutical companies could now manufacture it. This made it both widely available and cheap, helping cement its place in 1960s counterculture, music and art. Several high-profile and respected figures began advocating the use of LSD as a “mind-expanding” substance, including English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley and American psychologist Timothy Leary, who coined the “turn on, tune in, drop out” catchphrase widely adopted by the hippy subculture.
When pop musicians began endorsing LSD, its use quickly spread and, despite being a prescription drug, it was easily obtainable. However, concern began to grow over stories of users having ‘bad trips’ – extremely disturbing hallucinations and vivid psychedelic nightmares. Several deaths were recorded, not from overdosing on the drug but from actions committed while under its influence, such as people jumping off high structures in the belief they could fly. Others reported disturbing ‘flashbacks’, sometimes occurring months and even years after last using the drug.
In 1966, LSD was designated a ‘Class A’ illegal drug in the UK amid growing concern over its safety. In the USA it was made illegal in October 1968, although several states had already banned its use. Despite this new status and concerted efforts by law enforcement agencies to stamp out its use, LSD continued to be widely used, only really diminishing when new psychedelic drugs became available.
Albert Hoffmann continued to believe in the positive benefits of LSD, which he called “medicine for the soul”, and was frustrated by its worldwide prohibition. He said his invention was misused and abused by the counterculture of the 1960s, which gave it a bad name. On a personal level, Hofmann continued to take small doses of LSD throughout much of his life and always hoped to find a specific medicinal use for it. He died in 2008, aged 102.