The father of LSD


1938, Albert Hofmann, a young Swiss chemist employed by the Sandoz Pharmaceutical Company in Basel, Switzerland, was working with lysergic acid in the hopes of developing a stimulant for blood circulation. On the twenty-fifth experiment in the series he produced lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), a product he was certain was the stimulant he was seeking. He gave it to the laboratory’s medical department, which tested it and told him he’d once again failed.

Five years later, after new and more precise tests had been developed, Hofmann decided to resynthesize and resubmit his lysergic acid diethylamide for pharmacological scrutiny. But something funny happened in the last stages of his procedure: a minute amount of the product somehow entered his bloodstream and Hofmann found himself the first human guinea pig on LSD.

When HIGH TIMES contacted him in honor of the golden anniversary of his invention, Hofmann, now in his eighties, was quick, good-humored, and still fascinated with the effect his problem child—as he calls LSD—has had on us all.

Albert Hofmann has published several books, including LSD, My Problem Child, The Botany and Chemistry of Hallucinogens, and Plants of the Gods.

HT: Let’s start with a brief summary of your work at Sandoz and why you ended up synthesizing LSD. What were you working on and looking for when you crystallized that compound?

HOFMANN: I was working with ergot, a fungus which contains many, many interesting substances, alkaloids, trying to synthesize a stimulant for blood circulation. That was the idea.

Now as a model I had koramine, which was already a famous circulation stimulant. And because lysergic acid, with which I was working, has a structure similar to koramine, I expected that lysergic acid diethylamide would also be a blood circulation stimulant. That was my plan.

HT: What happened?

HOFMANN: Well this substance, lysergic acid diethylamide, which I first synthesized in 1938, was given to the pharmacological-medical department at Sandoz laboratories for testing. But they didn’t find anything special. The animals that were used for the test had no special reaction with this compound and further research was stopped with this substance.

Five years later, in 1943, I decided to prepare a new batch of the lysergic acid diethylamide for more extensive testing because from the very beginning I thought this substance was something special. It was just a feeling I had, when I was working and preparing substances. So I had the intention to provide it again to the medical department.

Then, at the end of the synthesis, when I was crystallizing the LSD, I suddenly went into a very strange, dreamlike state. Everything changed, everything had another meaning, unexpectedly. I went home and lay down and closed my eyes and had some very, very stimulated fantasies. I would just think something and that was what I saw. It was wonderful.

But I didn’t know why I was having this strange experience. I had not ingested anything, I had not taken anything, and I didn’t know why that had happened to me. The only explanation I could see was that I had used a compound similar to chloroform in the synthesis, and I thought maybe some vapors from this compound, which was dichlorafilin, could be the reason.

And then three days later I experimented and inhaled some of this solvent, but nothing happened. So then I thought that maybe in some strange way I’d gotten some of this lysergic acid diethylamide in my body and I decided to experiment on myself with it. So I made a water solution with five milligrams.

HT: You didn’t take anywhere near that though, did you?

HOFMANN: No. I started by taking the equivalent of only one-quarter of a milligram, two hundred and fifty micrograms.

HT: How did you take it?

HOFMANN: I drank it. And within half-an-hour I began to experience similar symptoms to those I’d had three days earlier. But quite quickly they became very strong, very intense, and I became anxious, so I asked my laboratory assistant to accompany me home.

As it was wartime and I had no car, we went home by bicycle, and the bicycle ride was strange. And this bicycle ride, which was only about six kilometers from the lab to my little village, has been so important to the story of LSD. I don’t know why.

HT: Tell us about that ride and that first induced LSD experience.

HOFMANN: I had the feeling that time was standing still. It was a very strange feeling, one I’d never had before. There was a change in the experience of life, of time. But it was the most frustrating thing. I was already deep in the LSD trance, in LSD inebriation, and one of its characteristics, just on this bicycle trip, was of not coming from any place or going anyplace. There was absolutely no feeling of time.

At home I asked my assistant to call for a doctor. And as my wife and children were away for a few days, I also asked him to ask the neighbors for milk. Milk, you know, is known as an antitoxin in general.

HT: Did it help?

HOFMANN: Not at all. I was in a very odd state of consciousness. The outer world had changed. The room seemed to be full of life in the light, and colors were more intense. But I also had the feeling that I was changed, that my ego had changed. And then it became such a strange experience that I was afraid that I had gone insane. And sometime during that experience, at the climax, I had the feeling I was out of my body.

In the meantime the doctor my assistant called arrived and he tested my blood pressure and my head and such and he could not find anything abnormal, with the exception that the pupils of my eyes were enlarged. But nothing else.

HT: Did the doctor’s visit and his assurance that you were alright calm you down?

HOFMANN: No. I had the feeling I was going to die. I had no feeling in my body and thought I’d already left it, was already out of my body, which was something I couldn’t explain to the doctor. I couldn’t really speak rationally to explain that I had made an experiment, either. He wouldn’t have understood that.

So he sat with me through that very difficult experience—horribly difficult—and after about four or five hours the feeling began to change. I felt that I was coming from this very strange other worldback to our normal world. And I had the feeling, when I came back from this strange world, that our normal world, which ordinarily we don’t think is wonderful, was a wonderful world. I saw it in a new light. It was a rebirth.

But this happy feeling was only at the end of the experience. And when I came back I closed my eyes and had beautiful, colored visions. It was of course very strange. There was a transformation of every sound in optical figures. Each noise produced a corresponding colored figure, which was very enjoyable.

Finally I went to sleep, and in the morning I was completely fresh. I had the feeling that I was seeing the world as it was on the very first day of creation.

HT: When did you first record that experience?

HOFMANN: I wrote these things down for the head of the Sandoz pharmaceutical department, Professor Stoll, and for the head of our pharmacological department. And they did not believe me. They said I must have made a mistake with the dosage, that it was impossible that such a small quantity could have any effect. But then some people in the pharmacological department at Sandoz made experiments with other people which confirmed the enormous potency of this substance. They took only one-fifth of what I had taken and they still had very strong experiences.

HT: Why were they skeptical about the dosage?

HOFMANN: Because nothing so small has such an effect. Even today, LSD is the most potent of the psychoactive substances. With psilocybin, for example, you need one hundred times more; for mescaline you need five thousand times as much. With one gram of crystallized LSD you can have 10,000 to 20,000 doses! And that is absolutely unique among compounds. Which is why I always laugh when I read stories saying a gram of LSD makes 100 doses or even 1,000 doses.

Now this is very significant pharmacologically, because to produce such a profound effect on your consciousness, your senses, from such a small dose, meant LSD must attack the very center of our consciousness, where all these things come together. Which means LSD works very specifically on our brain, on the very center of our psychic core.

HT: Because it is so potent, are there any physical dangers connected to it’s use?

HOFMANN: LSD changes our consciousness. That is the most important thing about it. The bodily effects are almost nothing. We have yet to discover the lethal dose. People have had hundreds of times the active dose and they have not died. No one has died from a toxic dose of LSD. Not one case. All the fatal cases have come from accidents due to the disturbances of the consciousness.

HT: How did LSD begin to be utilized by psychologists and psychiatrists?

HOFMANN: We immediately knew it would be a very important instrument in psychiatry because of this action on our consciousness, so at Sandoz we began supervised psychological experiments with volunteers. Based on those tests it was first investigated in psychiatry by Werner Stoll, the son of my boss at that time, who was at the psychiatric clinic in Zurich. He performed the very first study with LSD, giving it to both normal persons and different kinds of mentally ill persons. It was a very fundamental investigation, but based on his first paper, which appeared in 1947 in the Swiss psychiatric journal, Sandoz began distributing LSD—with the label Delucit—to investigators. It came with a leaflet of instructions.

And then it found enormous interest worldwide for many years at the end of the forties and in the fifties. I think it appeared in many thousands of medical journals, and all things went well.

HT: What were your feelings when the United States army and the Central Intelligence Agency began to use it as a military tool?

HOFMANN: I was not happy at all that the people of war, the army laboratories, were interested in LSD. And I heard that it was not only the United States but that Russia also experimented with this substance. But I think the title of the army publication from the United States that discussed this was War Without Death. Instead of killing our enemies they planned to incapacitate them. They believed they would be able to use incapacitating drugs, and in this case it wouldn’t be so bad. That does not mean that I sanction this sort of use. I don’t. But many experiments were made by the army. That is already known and published. I think you will find many of these things in that new book called Storming Heaven.

HT: Did the military ever contact you directly?

HOFMANN: Yes, people from the Chemical Warfare division of the US Army came to my lab twice, asking if I could advise them on the synthesis of LSD. Which I could not do. You see, we had already published the synthesis in journals and in the patent, so that was not the problem. The problem was you needed the ergot fungus as a starting product, and that was difficult to get since ergot must be grown on a grain field. So it could not be made on a commercial scale at that time. Eli Lilly was able to make it finally, starting with other things, benzene, chlorine and some other simple products, but that process was so complicated, so complex, that that formula was never used. But then a special strain of ergot fungus was discovered which can be grown in tanks, and that was the breakthrough for commercial lysergic acid use.

And there are many other products derived from lysergic acid, some of which I invented. But these were not my problem children. That was LSD, which was the most important.

HT: What about your isolation of psilocybin from the magic mushrooms of Mexico. How did you get involved in that work?

HOFMANN: There was a man, Gordon Wasson, who had been to Mexico and spent time with some Indians and he reported he’d had visions from eating mushrooms. His colleagues did not believe him, so he had the mushrooms investigated at the Merck-Chemie Laboratories and in the University of Paris, with Professor Heime. But they were not able to isolate any active principles.

Then professor Heime heard that our lab in Basil was producing something that gave the same psychic effects as the mushrooms produced, so he asked us if we would investigate the mushrooms. So we studied the mushrooms, made extracts, and isolated the active principles.

But the question is why did we have success so quickly when the other laboratories didn’t? I’ll tell you. Because we tested the extracts on ourselves. We ate the extracts and had the experience, and then later we were able to concentrate extracts and finally crystallize them. These were also distributed by Sandoz, like LSD, to researchers.

HT: Did you ever get to meet Mr. Wasson?

HOFMANN: Gordon Wasson was so enthusiastic when he heard of this success that he came to visit my lab. And when I showed him the psilocybin crystals and explained them to him he was very happy. But then he said, “There is another magic plant in Mexico, used by the Indians, called ololuiqui, that has not yet been chemically investigated. You should also start to investigate this.”

So I studied the literature and found a publication by Dick Schultes (Harvard botanist, the father of ethnobotany. Editor.) about ololuiqui, in which he described it as seeds of a certain type of morning glory. We later met at a congress on medicinal plants in Berlin about 1960, and I began working with him.

HT: Were you ever able to investigate those seeds?

HOFMANN: Yes. In ololuiqui seeds—which I got via Wasson who got them from a Zapotec Indian—we found as active principle, listen now, lysergic acid amide. Very closely related, of course, to lysergic acid diethylamide. That was extraordinary! Nobody could believe it, because lysergic acid had previously been found only in fungi, in very low, very primitive plants. But ololuiqui are the seeds of flowering plants, and it is a very exceptional thing to find the same active principle in fungi and flowering plants.

This shows us that LSD is not just a laboratory product. It is closely related, chemically, pharmacologically and psychologically with an old, Indian magic drug. That means that LSD belongs to the group of the sacred magic plants of Mexico. That’s a very important finding. And I think this is very strange that you find a compound which is very similar to LSD to be the active principle of an ancient magic plant.

HT: That was the discovery which provided the basis of your theory of the Mysteries of Eleusis—initiation rights in ancient Greece, in which people were said to commune with the Gods after drinking an intoxicating beverage—wasn’t it?

HOFMANN: Yes, Gordon Wasson and I were convinced that the Mysteries of Eleusis used, in their holy potion, an hallucinogen which would produce visions for hundreds of people at the same time, all having the potion. Which means there must have been a psychoactive ingredient.

So we made an hypothesis, very well founded, that it was an LSD thing that could have been there. Because there is a special ergot that grows in the Mediterranean basin in the environment of Eleusis, that contains the same alkaloids as ololuiqui, namely, lysergic acid amide and hydroxy ethyl amide, and the priest of Eleusis had only to pick up the grains of this special ergot, drain it and dissolve it in the potion and they had an LSD-like preparation. And that is the hypothesis that this was the drug of Eleusis.

HT: Very different from our system of personal initiation.

HOFMANN: I think in antiquity they had institutions where people who wanted to be initiated could, under well elaborated conditions, have a beneficial effect from it. But we don’t have this. Maybe the psychiatrists that use LSD as a tool in psychoanalysis or psychotherapy prepare a setting which comes near to something which was used in Eleusis, but a medical environment is not the same as a spiritual one. That is a problem which our society has not yet solved.

HT: When people like Leary began to popularize LSD, what were your feelings?

HOFMANN: I was quite astonished, because the very deep effects of LSD are not at all just pleasurable, there is always a confrontation with our deepest ego. So I was quite astonished by this development. I wondered what happened. And at the very beginning I thought that it would be very dangerous when it began to get on the streets in the United States.

It turned out that my fear was well founded because so many people were not conscious enough, they did not have the respect which the Indians in Mexico had. The Indians believe you should only take the mushrooms if you have prepared by praying and fasting and so forth, because the mushrooms bring you in contact with the gods. And if you are not prepared they believe it can make you crazy or even kill you. That’s their belief based on thousands of years of experience.

HT: What did you think of Leary himself?

HOFMANN: People say I was the father of LSD and he was the prophet of LSD. When I met him in Switzerland, in Basel, I was quite impressed by how full of life he was, and with his devotion to his LSD and mushroom research. At the same time I was a bit anxious that he would get too impressed with himself, so I told him to be wise. But he was so enthusiastic about the effects of LSD and psilocybin that he threw my opinion away and was telling everyone to use it. But we were still on very good terms.

HT: A lot of us took his advise, and came out alright somehow. Most of us even say we’ve come out better for it...

HOFMANN: Yes. Many, many people have contacted me and confessed that this experience was very important to their lives, really. But thousands have been brought into the hospitals and clinics because of psychological breakdowns and so on. That was the reason it was withdrawn from the medical fields, which was absolutely illogical. If something is used unwisely on the streets why would you forbid its use in the medical field where it never had done any harm?

HT: What about the people doing the raves and acid-house these days, doing LSD and dancing for two or three days non-stop. What about that?

HOFMANN: I have not heard about this at all. I don’t know.

HT: In terms of it’s street use, since some people are going to use it anyway, what should these people know to protect themselves. Is there a simple antidote for people who have a toxic reaction?

HOFMANN: Yes. They could get an injection with a tranquilizer. But in psychiatric treatment we say you should not interrupt this. If you have a little care it will pass. It is only dangerous if you have a horror trip or something and you cannot stop it, and then you make an injection with a tranquilizer.

HT: I was hoping there was something simpler. We cannot carry around tranquilizers and syringes...

HOFMANN: Yes, and when you go to the hospital for the tranquilizer that itself is very frightening. Of course. But I don’t know what to say for another answer.

HT: Do you think it was a grave mistake on the part of those of us who used it on our own to use it at all?

HOFMANN: No. Not at all. We also, before it was banned, tried it. We made these sessions, which were very important.

HT: Looking back at 50 years of LSD use, what are your thoughts?

HOFMANN: I finally look back and say it was good that it happened. The hippie period of American history is very important. Of course, it could have been even better if LSD had not been used unwisely and uncautiously. That was the disaster. But the bad reputation came from those things which failed. There were a few, a few, compared with millions who used it in the good way. That is regrettable, very regrettable. We could have had another development. But I don’t think the story of LSD is finished yet.

HT: What did you mean?

HOFMANN: I think LSD and other psychedelics should be available for psychiatry. Other doctors have access to morphine, they have access to cocaine, but they have no access to LSD. This must change. And once LSD can be legally used in medicine it will be possible to accumulate more knowledge about how to use it and how to get the best of it. But you need a legal situation. If we learn to use it with respect and under the right conditions the beneficial effects would be enormous.

HT: Do you know Sasha Shulgin, author of the book Pihkal?

HOFMANN: Yes. He is an old friend of mine.

HT: What about the new analogues he discusses? Have you an opinion about them?

HOFMANN: All of these new drugs that are being synthesized are derivatives of mescaline or amphetamine. Or between them. But they are nothing like LSD. The chemistry is quite different, but they are also derived from magic plants of Mexico. Shulgin has made hundreds of derivatives of mescaline combined with the structure of amphetamine, which is closely related to mescaline.

HT: What about Ecstacy? Have you tried it?

HOFMANN: I have tried Ecstacy. It is quite different from LSD, it doesn’t go so psychologically deep. You have the feeling that you must kiss or embrace the whole world. But it is not as dramatic an experience as going deep into the various stages of your psyche with LSD.

HT: Do you continue to experiment on yourself with LSD?

Hofmann: No. I do not believe I need to get new insights from LSD because I got it. I got it. And with that insight I must do what Huxley wrote me once in a letter. “What you take in by visionary experience you must give out by intelligence in daily life.” That is now my task. I would like to be part of the Universe, which is the feeling I got from the LSD experience. This feeling is always present in my life, and therefore I do not need to repeat the experiment. It was also Huxley’s idea that a man should only take it three times in his life. In antiquity they went to Eleusis only once to have the initiation. It is not necessary to use it often. Maybe you should use it for a special experience.

HT: What about those who take it dozens, or even hundreds of times?

HOFMANN: I cannot understand people who say they took it hundreds of times. It is known that it loses its effect, its potency, with use. If you use it every day for just four days, on the second day it is less active than the first, the third less than the second, and on the fourth day there is no effect at all. You must stop at least one week to have the full activity again.

That is quite different from all the drugs which produce addiction. That is also important, that LSD does not produce any addiction. That is a difference that generally the health authorities don’t respect and don’t understand. And that is a very important thing, because all the drugs which are a problem in society are addiction producing and addiction is the problem. Not one experiment with heroin. That doesn’t matter. The danger is in the addiction. That is an enormous difference in these compounds.

HT: Anything you would like to add?

HOFMANN: I hope that we will learn in time to use it in the proper way. I am sure it can open, as Huxley would say, our doors of perception.

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