History of LSD
Albert Hofmann: The Father of LSD
Acid had its boom in the 60’s and 70’s, and it’s used internationally today. But its birth miraculously came about back in 1943, by the accident of a Swiss man named Albert Hofmann.
In the 30’s, scientists at the Rockefeller Institute in New York completed the publication that would be the foundation of Hofmann’s later research. They extracted and isolated the main psychoactive component from ergot.
LSD’s chemical history comes from a natural compound called lysergic acid amide, or LSA. LSA is found naturally in ergot and in the seeds of the Convolvulaceae family of plants, also known as morning glory. LSA has a long history with humans, and has been traced to religious and spiritual use by Native Americans in 1941 in what is now Mexico.
At the time, Hofmann worked for a big pharm company called Sandoz. He was examining the uses of the Claviceps purpurea fungus, a type of ergot, and the chemicals it produced for clinical benefit, growing the fungus that can commonly be found on old, moldy rye bread. (Odd side note: Many doctors in the 1800s began condemning ergot and its derivatives because of its use by young women to induce labor. The doctors argued that the doses of the active chemicals in the plant can cause a woman to contract too tightly while giving birth, possibly harming or even killing the child. It’s still, however, accepted as a treatment after a woman has completed giving birth, to help curb excessive bleeding.)
Hofmann began his research by producing derivatives and analogues of lysergic acid from the compound ergot fungus he grew in his lab. Some of these derivatives showed potential in helping patients suffering from high blood pressure. Others, he discovered, had an ability to assist proper executive functioning of the brain in older patients.
Hofmann entitled the 25th derivative he created LSD-25. It was lysergic acid diethylamide. The compound showed potential for aiding sufferers of dysfunctional respiratory and circulatory systems, he found. But Hofmann didn’t come up with any concrete tests or evidence to prove a clinically viable (and more importantly profitable) drug had been found, so Sandoz had the research project paused, and Hofmann discontinued his work.
Five years later, it was 1943.
Hofmann’s mind kept wandering back to the mysterious compound he had last synthesized. LSD-25, he felt, was different; it had medicinal significance, one way or another.
So on April 16th, he returned to his lab. He took out the beakers, the test tubes, the hosing, the eyewear…everything he needed to synthesize LSD-25 right then and there. He did it quickly, and ended up with a nice batch of near pure compound.
But suddenly, Hofmann felt woozy, he thought, or dizzy, he wasn’t sure. It wasn’t really discomforting, but he didn’t want it to do anything that could make it worse. So he didn’t continue examining the compound; instead, he checked out of work early, taking a sick day, and went home.
Hofmann parked his car, got out, walked to his front door, opened it, and got in, lying down, in a time that felt like half an hour. He felt weightless on the couch, and his thoughts felt weightless, free. It was a dreamy, surreal sensation.
Then came the patterns. It was an intense display of complex, dynamic geometric shapes and forms aligning in ever-changing patterns.
Pictures came, first like a hazy dream, but then vivid, lifelike and real. He didn’t know if he was dehydrated, or if his brain wasn’t getting enough oxygen, and he was hallucinating as a symptom of hypoxia, or what.
But the effects faded quickly. After a few hours, he felt physically and mentally as though the whole experience had never happened. He thought about the sequence of events, and decided that he must have accidentally picked up a bit of LSD-25 on his finger, absorbing it through his skin (he must have actually touched his finger to his mouth, or in some other way ingested it into his body; LSD can’t absorb through the skin well enough by itself to cause any noticeable effects, though it can with the aid of the solvent DMSO).
Then, Hofmann actually decided to take more.
The next day came, and when the work day was finished, he measured out 250 micrograms (millionths of a gram; 250 mcg is about a fourth of a milligram) of LSD-25 compound. He had figured the number earlier in the day to be about the minimum amount he’d have to take to get any noticeable effects.
The intensity with which the LSD hit him was completely beyond what he had been expecting.
From the outside, it initially appeared that Hofmann had simply “checked out” and lost touch with reality. He started speaking nonsense words or gibberish, managing enough sensible language to tell his lab assistant to call the company doctor, and eventually lost the ability to form coherent syllables.
Then, like in the last experience, but much sooner and at a much quicker rate, the colors, patterns, and images came to him. The dreamscapes were more lifelike and vivid than before; it was as though he was exploring an inner-world, completely constructed within his mind.
He saw fantastic environments with plants and animals he had never seen before. He lost his sense of self, drifting along the constant stream of images and thoughts, taking in the beauty of the scenery before him. Hofmann couldn’t help but admire the divinity of the entire experience, though he was holding down the urge to lose it and start panicking at the same time.
He was, through the ordeal, very worried. He didn’t know if he had gone insane. He didn’t know if this weird, altered state of consciousness would fade away like last time, or if he’d be like this forever. But the doctor found absolutely nothing wrong. No negative results. Blood pressure regular, resting heart rate normal, breathing all good. The doctor did notice Hofmann’s pupils were abnormally dilated; so there was physical indication that he had taken an active substance.
But, just like before, the effects faded as well, and within a few hours, Hofmann had returned to normality.
He let Sandoz know about his finding right away (Hofmann didn’t necessarily approve of the following chain of events), and Sandoz arranged teams to test the compound’s effects in different dosages in different mammals. After successful trials showing strong evidence that LSD had little permanent side effects, Sandoz got permission to distribute the drug to various universities and medical institutions; there, LSD’s effects would be tested on willing patients, both healthy and sick. The results were also in favor of the previous evidence, and Sandoz celebrated.
The company applied for and received a patent for lysergic acid diethylamide. Then, in 1947, it started selling it as a prescription drug in 25 mcg tablets to pharmacies, marketing it as an “analytical psychotherapy drug” and calling it Delysid. Sandoz even told the psychiatrists prescribing LSD to their patients to try the drug themselves a time or two, so they could “better understand their patients.”
By 1949, psychiatrists at the Boston Psychotropic Hospital were prescribing it to patients frequently. By 1960, the drug had exploded in the medical field, and research teams everywhere where were spawning report after report illustrating its various potential uses in different fields and in patients with all sorts of different conditions. Acid had gained a foothold as a popular recreational psychedelic, and the counterculture developing at the time would soon take up the drug as one of its core components. In fact, by 1966, Sandoz had ceased production of LSD; it was in the hands of the pharm companies left that were granted access to it by the government, and in the future of the small, underground synthesizers of acid, who would soon take over the industry when the drug was scheduled in the U.S. on October 24, 1968.
By then, LSD had solidified its place as an effective clinical compound and an extraordinary drug with enlightening effects; it was, so to speak, here to stay. And today, trials on the drug continue worldwide, finding more and more uses as its reach continues to expand.