Often, technological innovation and groundbreaking scientific discoveries happen by accident. From mishaps and failed plans, something new and valuable may arise. One such mishap was the discovery of lysergic acid diethylamide, also known as LSD…
On April 19th, 1943, in a lab in Switzerland, the chemist Albert Hofmann removed his glasses and leaned on the table. The most bizarre things were taking place in his mind. His sensory perception was incredibly enhanced, and he was hallucinating. He was sure he was going to die. He felt he’d rather die at home than in the lab, so he headed home on his bicycle. The bike trip didn’t go as planned. Everything that came into his field of vision became distorted like in a hall of mirrors. And everything he thought of appeared in vivid colours and images.
An hour earlier, Albert Hofmann had accidentally gotten a little bit of the substance LSD on his fingers during yet another one of his experiments. He had tested the agent five years earlier on rats while working on a substance that stimulated respiration and circulation, but the rats didn’t react, and he shelved the agent along with his hundreds of other unsuccessful inventions. Now, his own body was telling him there was something about this substance that called for further investigation. Terrified, Hofmann summoned a doctor, who paid him a house call. The doctor determined that nothing was wrong with Hofmann, and suddenly the chemist’s condition changed from an infernal paranoia to a blissful state of euphoria. It was then that Hofmann learned a basic characteristic of the psychedelic experience: that it enhances all emotions and senses. The chemist immediately realised the potential of the synthetic hallucinogen he’d developed by accident, and the research on LSD was now in full swing.
American scientists learned of the discovery, and a series of dramatic events soon unfolded with a plot as thick as any spy novel. LSD’s introduction was in fact part of a large-scale CIA operation on mind control during the cold war. The CIA feared that China and the Soviet Union had developed methods to brainwash American agents, and top-secret CIA funding was used to pay Western psychiatrists to research the effects of the substance on the human psyche in thousands of innocent civilians. Teams of British and American soldiers were ordered to carry out military exercises under the influence of LSD. And in the basement of a Danish hospital, over 400 psychiatric patients were overdosed with 10 times the normal dose of LSD and later isolated without any type of supportive therapy while they were tripping. The results were horrifying: Some committed suicide, while others experienced life-long trauma or near-death experiences.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t these reprehensible experiments that LSD became famous for. Today, we mainly associate the substance with the flower-power subculture, psychedelic art, and the anti-Vietnam war protests. It was embraced by the countercultural movement of the day and, not surprisingly, was outlawed. LSD became a controlled substance in 1968, which boosted its popularity on the streets. However, the ban also ended all research on LSD.
After being in a moribund state for many decades, psychedelic research is now experiencing a renaissance. Successful pilot projects have been carried out and are showing promising results for the treatment of anxiety about death in terminal patients, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other afflictions. Eighty percent of the war veterans it was tested on, who had PTSD for 19 years on average, are no longer experiencing PTSD. Focusing on major diseases and groups that evoke our sympathy, such as war veterans, has been a deliberate strategy. Psychedelic research is subject to strict legal oversight and continues to face headwinds due to the stigma associated with it. But if the current trend of impressive research results continues, LSD may one day win renown as a therapeutic substance. Today, there are as many psychedelic research projects going on as there were just before it became a controlled substance, and Albert Hofmann and the world’s first LSD trip are commemorated each year on the nineteenth of April: Bicycle Day.